October 24, 2006

"It so happens that everything that is stupid is not unconstitutional."

So said Justice Scalia.

Let's talk about English usage!

It would be better to say "not everything that is stupid is unconstitutional." "Everything that is stupid is not unconstitutional" can be read to mean that every stupid thing is constitutional, when plenty of stupid things are unconstitutional. I know there's some argument over whether this should actually be considered a usage error. The argument that it's not usually brings up Shakespeare's "All that glisters is not gold." Why didn't he write "Not all that glisters is gold"?

Here's a discussion of the usage dispute:
"All ... not" can... be condemned on the grounds of potential ambiguity. When I proposed the sentence "All the people who used the bathtub did not clean it afterwards" as ambiguous, many people vigorously disputed that it was ambiguous. But they were about evenly split on what it did mean!... "Not all the people who used the bathtub cleaned it afterwards" (or, if the other meaning is intended, "None of the people who used the bathtub cleaned it afterwards") is free of this ambiguity....

Fowler quoted a correspondent who urged him to prescribe "not all", and commented: "This gentleman has logic on his side, logic has time on its side, and probably the only thing needed for his gratification is that he should live long enough."
So, forget about this particular language nicety, I'd say. I'm rather glad to myself, since I was personally needled for years by someone who was inordinately vigilant on this usage point.

Not every ambiguous phase is a usage error/every ambiguous phrase is not a usage error.

24 comments:

Elizabeth said...

I like this post. Usage should combine with style; a good line should scan, or sound right.
"I only have eyes for you" sounds right over that melody. "I have for only you" wouldn't. Likewise "All that glitters is not gold" hits all the right beats.

Elizabeth said...

Make that "I have eyes for only you."

Ann Althouse said...

Glisters, not glitters.

Anyway, yeah, I never thought about how "I only have eyes for you" could mean that the guy's other organs will be withheld.

Guy Barry said...

Well semantics is a good old game.But most importantly English should be made the only official language of the constitution
semantics

Maxine Weiss said...

He's Italian, from the old Country.

You can't turn a WASP into a Wo#, or vice versa.

Can you imagine watching Godfather, or Goodfellas---and they all used correct grammar?

Peace, Maxine

Jim said...

Anyone who took the time to use a Venn diagram to attack the logic of the two phrases would have difficulty in not concluding that every stupid thing is constitutional and that nothing gold glitters.

People judge you by the words you use. Unfortunately, not all parties have the money to choose a judge who evinces understanding of logic in his choice of words.

Anonymous said...

I'm just very happy he said what I think he said.
Too many believe the opposite.

MadisonMan said...

I note that only the first link is broken. Or should that be I only note that the first link is broken? The first link is only broken?

AlaskaJack said...

The proposition "All S are not P" could mean "No S is P" or it could mean "Some S are not P". That is why this sentence form should be avoided-especially in law. That J. Scalia used it shows that even the great sometimes nod.

Harsh Pencil said...

Was Scalia speaking or writing? If he was speaking, he should be given a whole lot of slack. Mouths don't come with very good editors or backspace buttons.

Stephen said...

Related to Harsh Pencil's point of speaking vs. writing: this discussion highlights the distinction between how words sound versus how they look on paper. I think everyone in the audience knew the meaning of what Justice Scalia said. Furthermore, his phrasing sounded better than your suggested, more precise alternative. “Everything that is stupid” catches the listener’s attention while “not everything……unconstitutional” is too much work with its double negative.

Mortimer Brezny said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Richard Dolan said...

Perhaps there are contexts where the "all ... not" construction may give rise to problems, but Scalia's speech is not one of them. Like Shakespeare's, his meaning is perfectly clear.

The "bathtub" example of potential ambiguity raises an interesting point. Unless one had been watching all of the people use the bathtub, you wouldn't know whether "none of the people" or only "some of the people" using it had failed to clean it. All you would know is that, before any of them used it, it was clean; and after they had all finished, it wasn't. Unless the context suggested a different reading, the ambiguity in "[a]ll the people who used the bathtub did not clean it afterwards" is just what a careful and clever observer would intend. It just goes to show how much more subtle English is than Venn diagrams or symbolic logic.

Other than as an artificial example of interest to grammarians, I suspect that the "all ... not" construction is never (almost never?) misleadingly ambiguous, since context combined with the improbability of the proffered alternative meaning will resolve any doubt about the intended meaning. That may not satisfy logicians, but it's good enough for everyone else.

And, as elizabeth says, usage needs to take account of style as well. On that score, Shakespeare's (and Scalia's) usage wins hands down over the logicians'.

Joe said...

Apparently, it's just me, but I thought Scalia's comment was perfectly clear. It never ocurred to me that there was any other interpretation until I read the criticism here, though I have a hard time following the twisted logic.

StrangerInTheseParts said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

All vigilant personal needling is not offensive.

HaloJonesFan said...

Harsh Pencil pretty much sealed the deal. It's easy to mock or criticize the phrasing of transcripted speech, because even a rehearsed speech is still subject to malapropisms.

There are differences between writing to be read, writing to be spoken, speaking to be heard, and speaking to be read. The ends of that scale sound the most formal (and the first is often convoluted while the last sounds stilted.) The middle two are more familiar, and they won't measure up to the standards of the "ends"--but subjecting them to those standards isn't appropriate, because that isn't the idiom in which they were created.

HaloJonesFan said...

PS. Ann, I would never withold my organs from you.

AJ Lynch said...

So you are picking apart Scalia's usage because you feel guilty about doing same to Greenwald ?(LOL).

vnjagvet said...

To Elizabeth's point, here is a quote from the current Sara Lee website:

"Q: What is the slogan for Sara Lee Bakery?
A: Nobody Doesn't Like Sara Lee!
B: Nobody Does It Like Sara Lee!
The correct answer is 'A'."

Even professional addys use bad syntax on purpose to make it catchy.

Dwight Eisenhower and Casey Stengel used to do it on purpose to answer reporters without saying anything.

And Yogi Berra -- well, he's just Yogi.

Elizabeth said...

vnjagvet, that's a great example! And I sang along with it as I read.

So long as ads avoid the abominable use of ellipses and improper use of apostrophes, I'm willing to give them a lot of room to be creative and catchy.

Harkonnendog said...

There is zero ambiguity here because of the context. Printing that quote out of context is the actual usage error. IN context what he actually said is superior to the alternatives Ann provided.

Cedarford said...

Context, Ann! Context! What Scalia said, if I remember right, was how Nadine Stroessen was rhapsodizing about the ability of activist courts to fix stupid societal practices and decisions - and in that context of a ACLU conference debate about a restrained vs. activist judiciary - Scalia's remark "It so happens that everything that is stupid is not unconstitutional."

Is not only logically correct, good legal observation..it made perfect sense.

In fact, writing this, I was reminded of Gen. Russell Honore's quote as he began untangling Nagin's, Blanco's, and FEMA's clusterf**k - "Don't get stuck on stupid!"

Now a grammarian may have some issues with Honore`, but when he said it I doubt a single person failed to "get" what he meant or that it was a near-perfect thing to say to battalions of people needing serious and forceful leadership.

(As you probably know, Scalia was famous for his dissenting skewerings of Sandra Say O'Connor for her vapid, opaque opinions failing to clearly state what the heck she meant. Just as notable, he never pounced on Ginsburg or Breyer on issues of unclear language..)

kettle said...

"It so happens that everything that is stupid is not unconstitutional."

"All that glisters is not gold."


Ah, human language will be forever tortured by slow irresolute changes in statistical usage patterns, much to the grammarian's dismay. But that is what makes it fun and beautiful, no?

This struck me as implying that all stupid things are constitutional. Hehe.