Thursday, January 22, 2004

My Miss-understanding

A Jan. 21 posting by Chris Potts on LanguageLog discusses negated sentences that mean the same thing as their non-negated counterparts, the most well-known probably being this pair:

(1) (a) I couldn’t care less. / (b) I could care less.

This reminds me of another not-to-be-taken-literally negation that I first heard from my wife. She said:

(2) I miss not seeing her.

I had to take a few seconds to figure out what she meant. “So… you used to not see her … but now you do see her … and you wish you didn’t have to?” I asked. No, it turns out I could have saved the mental energy of figuring out the compositional semantics and just jumped straight to the pragmatically sensible meaning. She meant what I would have said like this:

(3) I miss seeing her.

I did a search for miss not on the Internet and found too many examples to include here, as well as a discussion of this idiom here.

Now Chris says cases like these challenge the theory of natural-language negation, since a negated sentence really ought to mean the opposite of an un-negated one. But I wonder. Looking at the couldn’t care less example, it may just be that speakers who use (1b) have a single definition for the whole phrase could care less—in other words, could_care_less = don’t care. And they could even still have the ordinary, compositional meaning for could care less, and would just have to use it with the appropriate intonation to distinguish it from the idiomatic could_care_less. As in, "I COULD care less about your well-being, like so many other parents seem to do with their kids -- but I DON'T care less!"

Coming back to the miss not seeing cases, we could just say that for people who use this construction, miss simply means “regret” (an idea mentioned in the above website). And what if there are speakers who can say either (2) or (3) equally well? OK, so for them, there are two homonyms, each pronounced as “miss,” one taking a gerund phrase and meaning “dislike not being able to do something that one previously could do,” and the other taking a negated gerund phrase and meaning “regret.”

The real test of this hypothesis would be finding out if there are speakers who can do something like this:

(4) I miss seeing you and not doing all the things we used to do.

Can this mean “I miss seeing you and I regret that we don't do all the things we used to do”? If you could say this or hear it with the above meaning, I’d like to hear from you!

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