6

Look at this sentence:

He is just acting like a clown, but if you think about his personality, which is usually more staid, you wonder if this clownish behavior might not be camouflage.

Why is it "might not be" and not "might be"?

Why is not here? What difference does it make?

  • 1
    This seems like it might be a 'Is the glass half full or half empty?' type problem. – deutschZuid Mar 12 '14 at 22:40
5

@user4550 I can see why you don't understand why! [Edit: responding to the OP's comment in Maulik's answer.] Let's look at related stuff for a minute. Look at this question: This might be camouflage, might it not? This is a polite way of asking whether someone thinks it might be camouflage, conveying the idea that the asker is open to the answerer disagreeing. Sort of like "Maybe I'm wrong, but this might be camouflage."

So, when you say "I wonder if this might not be camouflage" it's possible that you mean literally that you wonder if this might be something other than camouflage, and you could mean that you wonder (delicately) whether this is camouflage. You have to go on the context. In this case the context is that the person's clownish behavior is not consistent with his usually more staid personality, so we wonder if the person might (not) be hiding something. (Perhaps not? Perhaps so?)

So, putting the "not" in there is a way of softening the impact of a possibly emotionally-charged observation or question, by conveying that you are not sure one way or the other and inviting the communication of alternatives. Another example:

I've seen your brother very drunk fairly often. I wonder if he might be an alcoholic.

This is pretty blunt. The sensitive approach uses the "not":

"I'm probably wrong, but I'm concerned. I've seen your brother very drunk on several occasions, and I've been wondering whether he might not be an alcoholic.

There's more of an "I haven't made up my mind yet" feel to it, so the answerer is less likely to take offense.

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    +1 I think you've nailed it. It expresses the same tentativeness and willingness to be better instructed as the conventional question tag: "It might be camouflage, mightn't it?" – StoneyB on hiatus Mar 11 '14 at 18:56
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    Yes, exactly. And it's common to shorten your sentence to "mightn't it be camouflage?" which serves as another example of the convention. – BobRodes Mar 11 '14 at 19:03
  • @user4550: exactly. Your first one is less inviting of disagreement, and your second doesn't invite disagreement at all – BobRodes Mar 12 '14 at 14:23
1

It certainly does suggest that it is, rather than is not, camouflage.

"might not be" is like short hand for "might be [x] not [y]". It opens the possibility of considering the negative position, while it "might be camouflage" indicates the positive possibility but ignores any negative possibility.

Consider:

It might be camouflage

vs

It might be camouflage, not something else

and consider

It might be camouflage, not something else

vs

It might be camouflage, not a genuine expression of his personality

Using "it might not be" implies anything that it is not, leaving the specifics of what it is not out of the equation.

This is an advantage when

  • you want to keep your point short and succinct; and/or
  • you don't wish to lead your audience to a conclusion about what it is not, but rather emphasise only what it might be.

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