Scale of meaning

An interesting feature of several languages is the impact of negation on the meaning of verbs.

Technically, a negation makes true things false, and vice-versa. This is different from a change in meaning.

More specifically: many verbs reflects concepts that can be put on a scale of meaning, ranging from a meaning to its opposite going through the absence of meaning. Compare:

  • to feel cold
  • to not feel cold
  • to feel warm

Or a single verb:

  • to swallow
  • to not swallow
  • to regurgitate

As exemplified here, negation does not (and technically should not) imply opposition. The truth value of an action or a description (or any other kind of verb) is about whether the positive meaning of the verb is asserted, or not. From a grammar standpoint, the opposite value of the verb is not summoned by the use of negation.

That said, several verbs are often assumed to have their meaning changed to their opposite when negated. Or, rather, the absence of another verb with the opposite meaning invites the use of negation to express that opposite meaning. This is unfortunate, as such uses of negation introduce ambiguity about what is the intended meaning of the resulting construct. Compare:

  • to like: I like potatoes
  • to not like: I do not like potatoes

The latter case is often understood (and intended to be understood) as a rejection, whereas technically it should merely mean absence of interest. Two scales of understanding are thus possible:

  • to like - to not like (lack of approval) - to dislike (aversion, antipathy)


  • to like - ??? (lack of approval) - to not like / to dislike (aversion, antipathy)

Incidentally, “dislike” is often understood to have two possible meanings, reflecting this ambiguity from the other side of the scale; as per Onelook

a feeling of aversion or antipathy
an inclination to withhold approval from some person or group

In the case of like / dislike, a lengthy and wordy construct is sometimes used to clarify the position on the scale: “I do not like potatoes, but I don’t dislike them either,” or “I do not like potatoes, I mean, I would rather not have them.”

Now, as clear as this idea of a scale of meaning is — from an asserted meaning to its opposite, going through its negated truth value — there are some verbs where the distinction is much less clear. For a few examples, most language users (in several languages, not only English) often do not distinguish negation and opposites. To illustrate the point, take the verb “want” as a case study:

  • “I want to love you”
  • “I do not want to love you”

In the latter sentence, what is the intended meaning? Technically, the negation changes the truth value, and should only remove the “intention” carried by the verb. However, in this archetypical example the most common use is to carry the opposite meaning: “I want to not love you.”

On the same line of thought, which of the following are intended to carry opposites, and which are merely negated?

  • I do not like chocolate
  • I do not like my mother
  • I am not happy
  • I am not unhappy

(Language is tricky. Semantics are even worse.)

Any suggestion for additional “tricky negations” is welcome!