odd double negative

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Wed Aug 24 14:15:26 UTC 2005

Hard to tell whether this was merely a slip of the tongue or something else.  Three or four weeks ago (I didn't note the exact date) KSAZ-TV was covering a high-speed police chase in Los Angeles.  The driver was doing up to about ninety on city streets, and it seemed inevitable that he would crash and injure or kill someone.  When the chase ended, the announcer said without hesitation,.

"Now he can't not hurt somebody."

This strikes me as an odd slip of the tongue ("Now he can't hurt anybody" is a pretty straightforward expression), but it also seems to be atypical of a simple double negative   As to the "slip" theory, this "can't not" construction has become pretty common as a kind of litotes; in such a case the sentence would mean, "Now it's impossible for him not to hurt somebody," or "Now he must hurt somebody" (though the latter is certainly less idiomatic than it might have been a century or so ago).


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