Negation: When No Means Yes in Night Vale

Gretchen McCulloch from the All Things Linguistic blog investigates how the podcast Welcome to Night Vale twists negation on its head.

Gretchen McCulloch, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #386

Other Gricean Maxims are Be Brief and Be as Informative as Necessary, and No More. Surely it would have been sufficient to negate the existence of a Waterfront Recreation Area and a Pink Floyd Multimedia Laser Spectacular only once, instead of the three and five times, respectively, that we see above. So why would the City Council have bothered to assert multiple times in very emphatic tones that these two things do not exist and have never existed? Methinks the Council protests too much, and actually ends up implying that they do exist. 

However, the City Council isn’t the only one saying all these negations: Cecil as narrator is also saying them by reporting the Council’s words on the radio, and Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor are saying them as writers of the podcast. If Cecil is reporting the City Council’s activities by adding lots of negation, he could be implying that he thinks that they are lying but wants to add plausible deniability; however, he seems to be reporting their words directly (“’Pink Floyd is not even thing,’ said the Council”). In this case, what the writers are probably implying is that the City Council is not only using city funds dishonestly but also is not very competent at lying about it. 

I’d hypothesize that judicious use of implicature and other pragmatic devices make for better storytelling: real-life liars don’t tell you that they’re lying and instead you have to figure it out from how they’re expressing themselves, so having to deduce that fictional characters are saying something different from their literal words makes them seem more real. (Which is something that I’ve previously noted in looking at lying, presupposition, and implicature in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, so it’s fun to find an example in another source.)

Thanks to the people at Welcome to Night Vale for giving us permission to use their audio.

This article originally appeared on All Things Linguistic, a blog by Gretchen McCulloch

The podcast was read by Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl and the creator of the new game Grammar Pop..

Angry Man photo courtesy of Shutterstock.


About the Author

Gretchen McCulloch, Writing for Grammar Girl

Gretchen McCulloch is an internet linguist and author of Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. She is the Resident Linguist at Wired and the co-creator of Lingthusiasm, a podcast that’s enthusiastic about linguistics. She lives in Montreal, but also on the internet.

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