No head injury is too trivial to ignore

Wed Jan 21, 2004

At Language Log, Chris Potts has a post on negatives that seem superfluous, in that with or without them the sentence seems to mean the same. Mark Liberman adds to this a naturally occurring example he found:

I challenge anyone to refute that the company is not the most efficient producer in North America.

Mark asks “Is this a case where the force of the sentence is logically the same with or without the extra not? Or did Mr. Duffy just get confused?”

I would certainly lean towards the latter explanation. But it’s quite well-known that it is hard not to be confused. The coolest case I know is this:

No head injury is too trivial to ignore.

[Think about it.]

I believe it was brought into the literature by Wason and Reich:

Wason, P. C., and Reich, S. S., “A Verbal Illusion,” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 31 (1979): 591-97.

It was supposedly found on the wall of a London hospital. Actually, a Google search suggests that the ultimate source of the quote is Hippocrates (460377 BC). By the way, a number of the Google hits seem to come from sites run by injury lawyers. Also by the way, the full quote appears to be “No head injury is too severe to despair of, nor too trivial to ignore”, which is even more mind-boggling, at least for my poor little brain.

I recall that Higginbotham discusses the example somewhere. I’ll try to find the reference when I have time.