'redundant' negative (let's see if we can't sort this one out)

Discussion in 'English Only' started by ewie, Dec 30, 2007.

  1. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    Elsewhere
    English English
    Hello everyone.
    I heard myself saying yesterday I'm going up in the loft to see if I can't find something to throw away.

    Question: (1) Why is it permissible to say can't where can would make a lot more sense? Is there a name for this construction?
    (2) Is this type of 'redundant negative' construction used in all varieties of English?
    (3) I'm not hallucinating. Am I?

    Any feedback would be appreciated.
    ~ewie
     
  2. Joelline

    Joelline Senior Member

    USA (W. Pennsylvania)
    American English
    Well, I'm flummoxed! I have no idea what that negative is doing there, but I can assure you that you will hear it in AE as well. I think it must have something to do with the "Let's see" or with the verb "see." I have also heard the following:

    Saleslady to me: Let's see if we don't have this in your size.

    My mother to me: Let's see if he won't join us for lunch.

    Bottom line: excellent question. No logical answer yet!
     
  3. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    I don't think the negative is redundant.

    Let's see if we can find something to throw away.
    We will go up to the loft and maybe we will find something to throw away.

    Let's see if we can't find something to throw away.
    We will go up to the loft and maybe, just this once, we'll not find something to throw away.


    Let's see if <condition>.

    Condition (1) <We can find something to throw away>.
    Condition (2) <We can't find something to throw away>.

    I use the structure of (1) if I'm not sure we'll find anything.
    I use the structure of (2) if I know we always find something.

    Does that make sense?
     
  4. Joelline

    Joelline Senior Member

    USA (W. Pennsylvania)
    American English
    Hi Panj,

    Your explanation makes sense, but the problem is that I don't know if it's true for me. I don't think I make the fine distinction you're speaking of; in fact, I'm sure I don't!

    "Let's see if he won't join us for lunch" doesn't mean for me, "Maybe, just this once, he won't join us for lunch."

    I'm wondering if this structure isn't* some variation on the following*:
    I'm going up in the loft to see if I can find something to throw away or not.
    Let's see if he will join us for lunch or not.


    *And what is the function of "isn't" here? Does this inadvertent example clarify or futher obfuscate?
     
  5. cuchuflete

    cuchuflete Senior Member

    Maine, EEUU
    EEUU-inglés
    Here's a guess:

    Let's see if we can't sort this one out. = Abbreviated form of
    Let's see if we can or can't sort this one out.

    Let's see if he won't join us for lunch. = Abbreviated form of
    Let's see if he will or won't join us for lunch.
     
  6. nzfauna

    nzfauna Senior Member

    Wellington, New Zealand
    New Zealand, English
    From a NZ English speaker - I would never use can't in that way. I would only use can.
     
  7. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    Elsewhere
    English English
    Joelline: I've fair flummoxed myself as well, I'll admit.
    Panjandrum: yes, your explanation makes sense, though, like Joelline, I'm not at all sure I was making that fine distinction ~ any distinction ~ when I said the thing about the loft.
    Cuchuflete: I like your guess.

    I've been trying to recapture that magical and innocent pre-loft moment to try and ascertain why I said can't not can. But I (ahem) can't. All I can say is: I often go up in the loft to look for stuff to throw away; I always find something; I haven't done much loft-visiting recently. And now when I run the two alternatives in my head
    see if I can find something to throw away
    see if I can't find something to throw away
    I still find myself unable to discern any difference in meaning.
     
  8. cuchuflete

    cuchuflete Senior Member

    Maine, EEUU
    EEUU-inglés
    If you wish to read lots of impassioned, and even a few logical statements about seemingly contrary statements that also may have the same intention and meaning, search for the thread about could/couldn't care less.
     
  9. Packard

    Packard Senior Member

    USA, English
    I don't think there is any difference in meaning between can/cannot in this case.

    It is a mistake, in my opinion, to equate math and English.

    We use double negatives in English to make fine distinctions. Double negatives in math negate each other. That is not the case in English.

    In this case can/cannot mean exactly the same. Math is math. English is English. Different rules for each.
     
  10. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    Elsewhere
    English English
    Eh? What? Who mentioned maths?;)
     
  11. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    I'm with you, ewie: I definitely use this sort of negative in informal speech.

    In terms of justification, the cuchu/Joelline idea that "let's see if I can't" is an abbreviation of "let's see if I can or can't" works well, I think. Interestingly, though, I find "let's see if I can't" and Joelline's "I wonder if there's isn't" slightly more positive than their equivalents with can/is.

    There's no similar justification for a context in which I use inescapably redundant negatives: after "I shouldn't/wouldn't be surprised". As in, for example, "I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't rain" meaning I think rain is quite likely. The rationale here can only be that the second negative is somehow echoing the first. In more careful speech I say, "I wouldn't be surprised if it rained".

    I comfort myself with the fact that Fowler lists my "shouldn't be surprised" usage among his "sturdy indefensibles". It may be a "foolish idiom"; but at least it's an idiom:D
     
  12. cyberpedant

    cyberpedant Senior Member

    North Adams, MA
    English USA, Northeast, NYC
    To add a bit of grist to the mill, "Let's see whether or not we can sort this out."
     
  13. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    Elsewhere
    English English
    Thanks for the input, Loob. Your example with if it didn't rain (which one hears a lot) would seem to indicate that there's some kind of underlying something-or-other to this. There's a kind of 'subjunctiveyness' about the words introducing these redundant negatives. I'm basing this on my knowledge of other languages in which verbs of 'perception' and 'subjective human experience' ~ see, be surprised etc. ~ are generally followed by a subjunctive. I'm not saying that this redundant negative is a subjunctive form, rather that ... well, dunno ... reflummoxed.

    Hohoho, CyberP. Someone who's skeptical about the validity of this exercise might say
    Let's not see whether or not we can't sort this one out:eek:
     
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2010
  14. Chris K Senior Member

    Tacoma WA, US
    English / US
    Can you help me? / Can't you help me?
    Can you find the answer? / Can't you find the answer?

    The difference is in the implication; with the latter forms you imply that you think that the person really ought to be able to do something.
     
  15. Packard

    Packard Senior Member

    USA, English
    I agree.

    I know that I am repeating myself, but there is no double negative or redundant negative in language.

    Those are artifacts from our being corrupted as children by math teachers telling us so. It applies to math only.

    The English language is nuanced with the use of the negatives. The meaning is almost never exactly the same as the positive.

    Example:

    She was not tall, she was not short; she was not fat, she was not skinny; she was not ugly, she was not beautiful. She was in all ways ordinary.


    This is not the same nuanced meaning as:

    She was of average height and weight; she was of average attractiveness. She was ordinary looking.


    Of course I never won this argument with my grade school teachers, but this is a so much more enlightened crowd that I am hopeful.
     
  16. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    :thumbsup::thumbsup: Chris K - that explains why I find "let's see if I can't" and "I wonder if there's isn't" more positive than their equivalents with can/is!

    I think this thread has established that "let's see if I can't" does not contain a redundant negative (it plainly doesn't contain a double negative).

    But I'm pretty sure negatives *can* be redundant. I really can't detect any difference in nuance between my "I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't rain" and "I wouldn't be surprised if it rained".

    Happy New Year, one and all!
     
  17. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southern England
    English - England
    I can't detect any difference either, but I've long been worried that I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't rain to mean I wouldn't be surprised if it rained was the sort of incorrect negative of emphasis that you find in a lot of uneducated speech - He's not going to no football match with no one this afternoon. For this reason I regard I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't rain as just plain wrong. I don't feel the same about Ewie's going to the loft to see if he can't find something.

    I have doubts about my own interpretation of I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't rain because the sentence conveys my worry that it is (rather than isn't) going to rain, so why do I need negative emphasis here?

    I'm also interested by the fact that the positive form: I would be surprised if it rained can't easily be mistaken or substituted for I would be surprised if it didn't rain. In the other previous case we seem to become entangled in a web of negatives and cease to be careful about adding another one (like irregardless, which means regardless).
     
  18. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    TT, I think we're straying from ewie's original question. My fault for referring to my "I shouldn't be surprised" usage. I said it was a foolish idiom and indefensible: let's leave it at that!:D
     
  19. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    A much more elegant explanation of what I was struggling to explain earlier.
    Can we sort this out? Can't we sort this out?
    Let's see if we can find ... Let's see if we can't find ...

    This does not shed light on the *different topic* of I shouldn't be surprised if it didn't, for which there is either an existing thread, or should be a new thread :)
     
  20. timpeac

    timpeac Senior Member

    England
    English (England)
    For me the use of the negative gives the aspect that you really hope you will, although you think the balance of probability is not - or at the very least adds an extra nuance.

    Let's see if I can find something in the loft - Default sentence.
    Let's see if I can't find something in the loft - Fingers crossed I can.

    Let's see if we can find you a pretty dress - Default sentence.
    Let's see if we can't find you a pretty dress - So stop crying, let's go and have some fun.

    I don't think the negative is being strictly used as the opposite of the positive here (which would mean the odds are that you can do whatever it is), just putting a more positive spin on the comment:

    Let's see if we can get him to come - Default sentence, he may or may not come.
    Let's see if we can't get him to come - You're probably expecting him to say "no", and so putting a positive spin on what will probably be a difficult task. Come on guys, it'd be easy to get him to come so let's see if we can't get him to come - that's much more difficult! (Although you really know the opposite is true!)

    I hope that makes some sense...
     
  21. Matching Mole

    Matching Mole Senior Member

    England, English
    This probably doesn't apply to all of these constructions, but often, I think, unnecessary negatives are used as "softeners", particularly with suggestions and assertions. This use of negatives make sentences less certain, less "pushy". You might describe them as "roundabout" ways of saying something (and there are many other examples of this sort of padding), and such statements come out sounding less brusque. This strategy is quite marked in polite Japanese (including the usage of negatives), and the similarities with strategies in polite English immediately struck me when I first learned about this. It's interesting how learning another language makes you think about what you had taken for granted in your own (but I digress).
     
  22. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    Elsewhere
    English English
    Thanks. Done. Head exploded around the middle of page 4.

    Yep, makes sense, Timpeac, and I'm definitely coming round to that way of thinking. Must admit (having done it again yesterday) that I'm currently finding it increasingly difficult to find stuff to throw out in the loft ~ mainly because I've got to the limit of the stuff I can actually reach ~ so I was perhaps putting a bit of positive spin on my initial statement.

    Certainly agree with you on this, MM.

    Sorry about the huge post, a lot to digest. A Happy New Year to all (and sundry too)!
     
    Last edited: May 27, 2012
  23. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    A not generally changes the meaning where if means "in the event":

    I'm going up in the loft if I can find something to get the door open with.
    I'm going up in the loft if I can't find something to get the door open with.

    But in this context, as has been suggested, if means "whether":

    I'm going up in the loft to see whether I can't find something to throw away.

    Whether introduces an indirect yes-no question:

    Can I find something to throw away? I'm going up in the loft to see.

    To me, the can version is a simple yes-no question, but the can't version is questioning/doubting a negative:

    I want to find something to throw away.
    I don't think you can.
    Can't I?
    Can't I find something to throw away? I'm going up in the loft to see.

    In other words, in the original sentence, can is unbiased, but can't expects a positive answer.
     
    Last edited: Jul 15, 2008

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