"as long as" used in negative sentences?

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jotham
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"as long as" used in negative sentences?

Post by jotham » Wed May 25, 2011 3:32 pm

Taiwanese President Ma says of the fourth nuclear reactor, which isn't yet in operation (from chinese translation):
  • As long as the plant isn't safe enough, it won't be (put) in operation.
Is it just me or does this not really fit in English?
I told a Taiwanese student today that this English conjunction (perhaps unlike its Chinese counterpart zhi yao) is better placed in the positive.
  • As long as the plant meets safety requirements, it will proceed as planned.
But when I asked other English teachers, they thought it was all right in the negative. I kept thinking of more examples, and still think it doesn't sound like something we say.
  • As long as you don't eat your vegetables, you can't play outside.
Is there any agreement, disagreement, or other comments?

fluffyhamster
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Post by fluffyhamster » Fri May 27, 2011 11:02 am

There are actually two meanings of 'as long as' here: 1) something akin to "for the duration of the comparison involved/if", and 2) "provided; iff".

Obviously Ma's statement, and the 'vegetables' example, are both instances of type 1), and the subordinate clause in each can certainly be grammatically if not functionally positive (i.e. isn't necessarily negative) - for example, I'll look after them [for] as long as you [continue to] pay me* (or indeed As long as the plant is/continues to be dangerous..., and As long as/If you refuse to eat...).

The flip side of all this is that examples of type 2) (which is what your second example is) can have subordinate clauses that are negative (i.e. that aren't necessarily positive): As long as the plant doesn't fail any preliminary tests and inspections, it will proceed as planned; As long as you don't mention the war, he should be OK!

Of course, the bipartite division of meaning for 'as long as' being posited here isn't absolute, and you may find them blurring into each other, but they could be useful to you, and I mentioned them mainly as a means of breaking the discussion down into more manageable steps rather than from any particular desire to impose any a priori reasoning! ;)

Anyway, based on the above, I'm not sure your theory is sufficiently watertight to start formulating any cast-iron rules, Jotham. I guess the reformulability of most propositions (from positive to negative and vice versa) is what is ultimately making this less a matter for any hard or fast "productive" rules and more a matter simply for receptive processes of comprehension ~ learning by osmosis from the input (assuming that can be made sufficient).


*The underlying example (I'll look after them as long as you pay me) is one of the deliberately amibiguous ones included in the CamGEL (Huddleston & Pullum call the comparison > compound preposition meaning "provided" basically a 'reanalysis').

jotham
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Joined: Thu Nov 16, 2006 12:51 am

Post by jotham » Fri May 27, 2011 1:51 pm

fluffyhamster wrote:There are actually two meanings of 'as long as' here: 1) something akin to "for the duration of the comparison involved/if", and 2) "provided; iff".

Obviously Ma's statement, and the 'vegetables' example, are both instances of type 1),
No, actually, Ma used the Chinese zhiyao, which is the conditional type "provided that." And I can comprehend the sentence okay thinking the conditional. All the sentences are meant to be applied as "provided that," and I admit they all sound comprehensible and logical enough thus. I should have clarified that. So that being the case, do sentence 1 and 3 nevertheless sound awkward? And why is that?

The flip side of all this is that examples of type 2) (which is what your second example is) can have subordinate clauses that are negative (i.e. that aren't necessarily positive): As long as the plant doesn't fail any preliminary tests and inspections, it will proceed as planned; As long as you don't mention the war, he should be OK!
Yes, you're quite correct. So why does sentence 1 feel strange? My guess is that in English, as long as and if mean approximately the same thing in positive sentences, but have a little nuance of difference in negative. Because as long as doesn't merely mean "if," but rather "only if." And that can change the meaning of the negative in a logical, rhetorical way that we native speakers are unconsciously aware, and in a way ESL students don't discriminate.
Anyway, based on the above, I'm not sure your theory is sufficiently watertight to start formulating any cast-iron rules, Jotham. I guess the reformulability of most propositions (from positive to negative and vice versa) is what is ultimately making this less a matter for any hard or fast "productive" rules and more a matter simply for receptive processes of comprehension ~ learning by osmosis from the input (assuming that can be made sufficient).
I'm not trying to make fast rules; i'm trying to figure out why it doesn't sound right in my ear and provide a logical explanation to students so they can better sound like a native speaker.

At any rate, do you agree that sentences 1 and 3 sound quite out of place if the intended meaning is "provided that"? If so, isn't it likely that ESL students could easily make this "error" for some reason? What can be said to help them prevent this until they develop their own sprachgefuhl?

Thanks for your input.

fluffyhamster
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Joined: Tue Oct 26, 2004 6:57 pm
Location: UK > China > Japan > UK again

Post by fluffyhamster » Sat May 28, 2011 12:05 am

I decided not to pick up on the matter of the Chinese-to-English translation, because you hadn't supplied the original Chinese text (beyond alluding to an apparent zh&#464;yào/zhi3yao4 &#21482;&#35201;, "only/merely/just need"; so long as, provided), and few people would've been able to make much use of it anyhow. So I dealt with just the English examples that were given (and let's not forget that this is primarily an ESL site). It is however hard to make sense of the (English) translation you've given (and whose translation is it, may I ask), based on what you're saying - I mean, for a start, I've not seen many if any examples of the zh&#464;yào (...jiù &#23601;...) construction in the negative (re. your "I told a Taiwanese student today that this English conjunction, perhaps unlike its Chinese counterpart zhi yao, is better placed in the positive"). I'd understand it more if the Chinese version used or had used something like &#22312;...&#21516;&#26102; (zài...tóngshí, glossed 'while' in the Collins/Reverso E-C entry for 'so or as long as', and with the following example: You can't turn the heat off as long as the system is on. &#22312;&#31995;&#32479;&#24320;&#30528;&#30340;&#21516;&#26102;&#65292;&#19981;&#33021;&#20013;&#26029;&#20379;&#26262;&#12290; Zài xìt&#466;ng k&#257;izhe de tóngshí, bù néng zh&#333;ngduàn g&#333;ngnu&#462;n. http://dictionary.reverso.net/english-chinese/long ). Anyway, I suspect this could be a case of a mistranslation/picking the wrong meaning, and/or that the English might be slightly more complex or versatile (e.g. allow that 2-to-1 mapping) than the Chinese...but like I say, it is hard to tell given the limited information.

But getting back to your asking that one read the three English sentences as meaning only "provided", there isn't actually anything wrong with them, provided :) of course that one comes up with a plausible interpretation (which, we being humans and ever seeking meaning in everything, isn't too hard to do):

"As long as/Provided the plant isn't safe enough, it won't be (put) in operation. So we must ensure that we do as bad an engineeering job as possible. We're nuclear engineers who have seen the error of our ways, the folly of nuclear power, so we will do everything we can to passively resist and indeed secretly sabotage the construction plans, whilst of course still putting food on the table (needs must)."

"As long as/Provided you don't eat your vegetables, you can't/won't be allowed by your mother to play outside. So I suggest you continue to not eat them, seeing how you hate playing outside. But don't tell your mother I said any of this!".

Again though, I myself sense a blurring of meanings somewhat.
Last edited by fluffyhamster on Wed Jun 08, 2011 12:34 am, edited 2 times in total.

jotham
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Post by jotham » Sat May 28, 2011 7:34 am

fluffyhamster wrote: "As long as/Provided the plant isn't safe enough, it won't be (put) in operation. So we must ensure that we do as bad an engineeering job as possible. We're nuclear engineers who have seen the error of our ways, the folly of nuclear power, so we will do everything we can to passively resist and indeed secretly sabotage the construction plans, whilst of course still putting food on the table (needs must)."

"As long as/Provided you don't eat your vegetables, you can't/won't be allowed by your mother to play outside. So I suggest you continue to not eat them, seeing how you hate playing outside. But don't tell your mother I said any of this!".
Bingo! You are excellent, sir!

I knew something was awry with the context it had been put in, but I have a hard time coming up with proper contexts. You not only disproved my first hypothesis -- negatives vs positives -- with examples and contexts, but you also couched the questionable sentence in a proper context from which I could deduce a better rule and explanation:

It seems as long as sentences need to be goal-oriented. There must be a striving to do something...or at least it can't be something you would distance yourself from (like playing outside). It's almost like saying, "Come on, you can do it -- provided that blah, blah, blah."

The nuclear sentence doesn't really work, because it isn't anyone's goal to be unsafe, unless, as you said, there is some Machiavellian plot to sabotage what we might normally consider a good thing. Does this sound like plausible explanation to you?

If so, I'm wondering surely there are resources out there that address this. I looked at Azar's and some other descriptivist ESL book and didn't find anything on this specific concern. Prescriptivists don't usually cater to the ESL market and related issues -- they endeavor to help native speakers improve their game -- so none of those references could help me.

Thanks fluffyhamster.

I'll see that student (who is a businessman) Sunday or Monday, at which time I can grill him on the exact Chinese. I asked this question to a Taiwanese friend recently, and he said that he thought even the Chinese is weird. I'll have to ask more friends about the Chinese on this.

I'm pretty sure though, it isn't Ma's intentions to sabotage the nuclear reactor. Though I'm not familiar with his personal philosophy, I know his party, the KMT, have always been for the operation of the 4th plant -- in opposition to the DPP, the green party. Perhaps for this reason, Ma is trying to comfort frayed nerves after the Japan ordeal, which sort of context the businessman tried to adumbrate to me.

fluffyhamster
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Joined: Tue Oct 26, 2004 6:57 pm
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Post by fluffyhamster » Sat May 28, 2011 2:11 pm

The nuclear sentence doesn't really work, because it isn't anyone's goal to be unsafe, unless, as you said, there is some Machiavellian plot to sabotage what we might normally consider a good thing. Does this sound like plausible explanation to you?
Yes, that's similar to what was running through my mind as I was writing my second post. (It can sure take a while to hammer out the exact semantics involved in any sentence, but especially in awry ones!). Anyway, glad I could be of help. I'll respond to the last few of the other threads/posts in your latest batch a bit later (though I might be more confrontational than helpful in them ;) :) ).

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