"not afraid to shy away" as hypernegation

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Fri Sep 7 01:40:38 UTC 2012

During a great quarterfinal match between David Ferrer of Spain and Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia at the U.S. Open Tennis tournament, the announcer for ESPN just related that the feisty Ferrer, the fourth ranked player in the tournament, "has never been afraid to shy away from a fight".  The sense was clearly that of "never been afraid of a fight" and/or "never shied away from a fight" (whether or not we want to call it a blend of the two).  Googling "not afraid to shy away from", I find "about 46,200" results, the first few pages of which are similarly hypernegative.  Thus we are variously informed that:

Kim Kardashian is "not afraid to shy away from provoking male attention"
Hope Springs is "a film about an aging married couple that's not afraid to shy away from sexual frankness"
Ted is "not afraid to shy away from making jokes about the foul-mouthed, booze drinking, pot smoking, protagonist" (= the eponymous talking teddy bear)
Kristen Wiig is "smart, funny as hell, and not afraid to shy away from real conversations about what it's like to be a woman"
Lydia Conklin's Living Cain cartoon is "not afraid to shy away from the inclusion of gay issues, or even canine sex"
Wing-Luke Museum in Seattle is "a highly regarded cultural institution that is not afraid to shy away from controversy"

In fact in looking through dozens of these, I can't find a single "not afraid to shy away from" that *is* compositional, yielding the opposite meaning from what all these in fact are intended to convey. It appears that the formal triple negative inevitably reduces to a double negative, and hence a positive.  Does anyone (e.g. Ben, Arnold, Mark, Neal) know if this construction has been either roundly condemned by angry prescriptivists or patiently discussed by enlightened Language Log or Literal-Minded bloggers?


P.S.  Note, by contrast, that there is not a single entry for "(not) afraid to run away from", which is evidently recognized as making as little sense as "not afraid to shy away from" "ought" to make.

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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