Former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson allegedly told a staff meeting in 10 Downing Street that they were at ‘probably the most unsocially distanced gathering in the UK right now’. That comment not only raises political questions but also illustrates an interesting linguistic point. What does the prefix [un-] negate in that phrase?
The spelling suggests that [un-] negates socially. But, of course, that isn’t the intended meaning. [un-] is clearly intended to negate either distanced or the whole phrase socially distanced.
The morphological (word form), phonological (sound) and syntactic (phrase form) structure of unsocially distanced seems inconsistent with its semantic structure (meaning). Such mismatches in structure are often called bracketing paradoxes because one way to show the structures is by using brackets.
On the face of it, the morphological and phonological structure (and perhaps also the syntactic structure) is as shown in (1). In that structure, the prefix un– negates only the adjective social:
But the semantic structure (intended meaning) is (2). In that structure, the prefix un– negates an entire compound verbal participle socially-distanced:
Structure (2) is consistent with the fact that the phrase social distancing became a fixed phrase early in the COVID-19 pandemic (though written as 2 words). Socially distanced soon became a common derivative of that phrase.
Paradox amplified by 2nd layer
Including most made the bracketing even more paradoxical. On the face of it, the morphological and phonological structure (and perhaps also the syntactic structure) of most unsocially distanced is (3). But the semantic structure is (4):
(3) [most [un-socially]][distanced]
(4) [most [[un-][socially-distanced]]]
In structure (3), [most] qualifies [unsocially] and [most [un-socially]] then qualifies [distanced].
In structure (4), [un-] qualifies [socially distanced] and [most] then qualifies [[un-][socially-distanced]]
Avoiding the bracketing paradox
If Johnson did indeed say the words, he could have avoided the bracketing paradox easily by saying (5), which has the structure shown in (5a):
(5) the socially most undistanced gathering
(5a) the [socially [most [un-distanced]]] gathering
In structure (5a):
- [most] qualifies [un-distanced];
- [socially] then qualifies [most [un-distanced]]; and
- [socially [most [un-distanced]]] then qualifies gathering.
Was Johnson playing with words?
As spoken, the phrase unsocially distanced does have a slightly lighted-hearted and jocular tone. This tone comes perhaps mainly from a slight dislocation caused by the bracketing paradox.
Given Johnson’s character and behaviour, and the nature of the event where he is said to have used the phrase, it seems likely he would have preferred to adopt that tone, rather than the more punctilious tone of socially most undistanced.
One good way to see bracketing paradoxes in a draft phrase or sentence is to insert brackets in the draft. If the bracketing shows that the structure may not convey your intended meaning, you might want to restructure the phrase or sentence.