While reading something online the other day I came across the phrase Twitter never fails to disappoint. The context made it clear that the meaning intended was ‘Twitter never disappoints’. This is the exact opposite of the logical reading that ‘Twitter always disappoints.’
That example reminded me of one from years ago. A tourist brochure for a seaside resort promised something along the lines of ‘A visit to X-on-Sea never fails to disappoint.’
And then, slap my thigh, today, when I was checking out restaurants for my partner’s birthday, what did I come across but this glowing recommendation: I’ve been going to X Bistro in Y since it opened, which was not yesterday, and I can safely say that their food has never failed to disappoint?
(Which shows that the phrase is not a completely frozen idiom, because it allows past tense.)
What is going on that makes a structure mean the opposite of what the speaker intended? And how do other speakers manage to extract the correct meaning? The discussion on the English StackExchange site shows that the phrase can certainly cause confusion.
Multiple negations cause problems
It’s all to do with the number of negations, and how the human brain goes into meltdown when trying to process too many. Having two negations might be the limit to easy intelligibility.
Such negations can be explicit (not, no, nobody, never, etc.) or they can be implicit (fail, ignore, avoid, etc.). If we analyse our phrase in terms of negation, we’ll find three:
• to fail to do something is not to do it = negation1 (explicit)
• never adds negation2 (explicit)
• disappoint adds negation3 (implicit)
(Disappoint is implicitly negative since it means ‘not to live up to expectations’.)
Logically, to never fail to do something means ‘to always do’ it. ‘Twitter never fails to disappoint’ therefore means ‘Twitter always disappoints.’
But the example which caught my eye was intended to mean the exact opposite. It reads like a conflation of ‘never fails to please’ or some appropriate positive verb, and ‘never disappoints’.
Not a unique case
Twitter never fails to disappoint is hardly a unique case of a phrase meaning the opposite of what the speaker intends. Another well-known and well-embedded example is the ‘It is impossible/difficult/hard to underestimate’ structure, where, logically, overestimate is meant, e.g. ‘It would be impossible to underestimate its [sc. Ulysses’] influence; the novel was never quite the same again.’ The logical meaning is ‘its influence cannot be overestimated’ i.e. exaggerated.
But there we only have two negatives rather than three: one explicit – impossible – and one implicit negative in overestimate, because to overestimate is to produce an incorrect estimate.
But let’s get back to never fail to do.
never + fail + to what?
In theory, in the sense of always doing it, you could never fail to do practically anything, for example, I never fail to eat Marmite at breakfast.
However, our old friend collocation kicks in strongly here. The string never + FAIL [sloped capitals mean ‘in all forms’] + to-infinitive very often goes with events and emotions that can be classified broadly as either positive (entertain, amuse, please, delight, inspire, etc.) or intense (impress, amaze, surprise, etc.), or a mixture of the two.
Even an apparently neutral verb such as make goes with positive verbs, e.g. MAKE + me/us/people, etc. + laugh/smile/giggle/chuckle (though whether that is, in any case, a feature of make, rather than of the entire phrase, is impossible to tell).
‘You’ve got to ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive…’
In fact, the top five collocations by frequency of never + FAIL + to-inf are (in my corpus, OEC Monitor Corpus April 2018) impress, amaze, make, deliver, disappoint.
If, as I have suggested above, the overall ‘profile’ of never fail to is positive, then speakers view never fail to disappoint as positive, despite its meaning the opposite. They take the whole as a ready-made, rather than analysing its meaning.
Moreover, it is possibly one of those phrases where the presence/absence of a negative makes little difference to the meaning. As Language Log pointed out, fail to miss behaves like that: the meaning is the same whether you say miss or fail to miss. Similarly, whether you say never DISAPPOINT or never FAIL to disappoint, the meaning is the same.
The corpus I consulted contains 226 examples of never FAIL to disappoint. In a random sample of 50, 45 showed the illogical meaning (= ‘never DISAPPOINT’)
We were rewarded with our choice of route as the New Zealand scenery never fails to disappoint. (= ‘never disappoints’)
If I’m going to drop $20 on a couple of made-to-order burgers, fries and a soda, there are a few Portillo’s close to here which are similarly priced but never fail to disappoint (= ‘never disappoint’) …The staff here is on point. Honestly, they can’t do enough for you.
A mere five (10%) exemplified the logical surface reading, meaning ‘always succeed in disappointing’.
For example, in this about the chronically inept Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS):
Lord Oakeshott, a leading LibDem peer, said: ‘RBS never fails to disappoint. Taxpayers poured £45 billion but it is a zombie bank, shrinking instead of lending.’
Similarly, this investigator of financial shenanigans:
My investigations often lead me into contact with British law enforcement and regulators and they never fail to disappoint me by their incompetence and lack of professionalism.
All in all, then, it would seem that the apparently negative ‘never FAIL to disappoint’ is well established as meaning the opposite of what it seems to mean, and as positive in intent.
We interpret it as positive, I submit, because a) we are now well used to a range of constructions that mean the opposite of what they are intended to mean and b) multiple negatives cannot be processed and, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, lead to a positive or affirmative interpretation.
It could also be significant that the opposite – always FAIL to – does not collocate with the same verbs as never FAIL to. There is a solitary example of always FAIL to disappoint:
The beauty of Smashing Pumpkins is that every album is drastically different from each other. I’m eager for this release, Billy Corgan has always failed to disappoint me.
And here is an utterly mind-boggling example, courtesy of LL:
These contrasts don’t mean that Bush was without blemish: As Meacham notes, there were political misjudgments and calculated concessions to ambition on the long path to power. Nor does it mean that Trump doesn’t lack his own kind of strengths, not the least of which is his loudly declared indifference to elite opinion.
The fact is, we are able to interpret these car-crash negatives correctly and extract the meaning the speaker intended.
As humble proof of that, I stared at this oft-cited canonical example for ages before I realised what was wrong: ‘No head injury is too trivial to ignore.’ Like you, gentle reader, I understood what it meant without needing to analyse it, but it should, obviously – D’oh! – on reflection, be rephrased as ‘No matter how trivial your head injury seems, we will not ignore it’ or ‘No head injury is too trivial to be attended to.’ Again, it’s a case of that triple negation; no head injury1; is too trivial to X2 (= ‘is so trivial that it will not be Xed)’; be ignored3 (negative = ‘will not be attended to’).
Watch out for this kind of phrase. There are never too many of them not to fail to ignore.