Thursday, November 10, 2005

Grammar geek moment
I ran across this sentence quoted by TPM from the Nelson Report:
[T]he Republican Leadership continues to trip all over itself, contradicting each other, insulting each other, and generally looking like incompetent fools.

I was about to deliver my usual cheap shot over a phrase like this--they look like incompetent fools because they are incompetent fools--when I began to ponder the phrase "incompetent fools." What does that mean in English?

"Incompetent" is being used here as an adjectival intensifier for the noun "fools." That is, they are exceptionally foolish. This is how most of us would understand the phrase. But, since "incompetent" and "fools" are both derogatory terms, this construction is a double negative of sorts. In a normal double negative, the two terms are approximately equal and one negative reverses the direction of the other making the whole meaning a positive. "Not never" means "sometimes." But, in this case, the terms aren't really equal leaving the ultimate meaning ambiguous. An "incompetent fool" should be someone lacking the basic skillset to be a fool. Does that mean they aren't foolish, or does it mean they can't even rise to the level of foolishness? Should I be allowed to write before I've had my morning coffee?

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