Grammar Moses: Is this NOT a double negative?
Reader David Bruun wanted to talk about double negatives. I'm not uninterested in the topic, so here goes:
"I was listening to the radio several days ago, and a Realtor was being interviewed as to financing a home purchase. The exact quote was as follows: 'It is important that you were never not late in a mortgage payment.' There are several of us who disagree, Is this not a double negative? And what does it mean -- perhaps that one was never late in a payment?"
David, it IS a double negative, and it makes no sense.
When Mick Jagger sings "I can't get no satisfaction," the implication is not that he is 100% happy but that he can't get ANY satisfaction.
He's being colloquial, and he landed upon a word that was one syllable short of "any" so the lyric matched the beat. When I wrote that I'm "not uninterested" in the topic of double negatives, I was conveying a modest amount of interest rather than an all-consuming love for them.
But for a real estate agent to say it is important that you are "never NOT late in making a payment" makes no sense at all. Clearly, the agent should have said, "It is important that you were NEVER late in making a mortgage payment."
Reader Kurt Stauff apparently doesn't follow the true crime channels nearly as closely as my wife.
"Midway through my reading of your column about headlines I was momentarily taken aback by the headline of the article appearing just beneath yours," he wrote. "It read, 'Man convicted of 1972 killings dies.' My first thought was that, at age 78, he could have been responsible for over 85 fatalities per year!"
Any student of this sort of aberrant behavior certainly knows the most prolific known serial killer in the world, British physician Harold Shipman, is believed to have killed 215 people over a 23-year span. That's just shy of 10 per year.
However, I do see your point, Kurt. Radio and TV broadcasts have an advantage over newspapers in cases like this, because you would say "Nineteen seventy-two murders" rather than "One thousand, nine hundred and seventy-two murders."
With the printed word, we rely on a comma to differentiate a number from a year.
Hang 'em high!
"My English vocabulary consistently struggles with the use of 'hang,' 'hanged' and 'hung,'" reader Diane Baker wrote. "Please lead me in the right direction as to the proper usage of these words so I don't embarrass myself when I speak."
Diane, I hope you haven't found yourself in too many uncomfortable discussions since you wrote to me four months ago.
This one is easy: Clothes are hung, wallpaper is hung and stockings are hung by the chimney with care.
People -- and only people -- can be hanged.
To be hanged is to be executed with a rope or facsimile.
Still, juries can be hung, telemarketers are hung up on every day, and one can get hung up on whether to use "hanged" or "hung."
• Jim Baumann is vice president/executive editor of the Daily Herald. You can buy Jim's book, "Grammar Moses: A humorous guide to grammar and usage," at
grammarmosesthebook.com. Write him at email@example.com and put "Grammar Moses" in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at facebook.com/baumannjim.