Wherein it is not possible but that Fr. Z rants.

At the blog of the Latin Mass Society‘s chairman, Joseph Shaw, there is the exposition of an important Latin text of Pius X in 1905 about frequent reception of Holy Communion.  The Latin is presented and compared to an English translation on the EWTN site, which may be the only English translation on the web.

The text is about receiving Communion with the knowledge of venial sins.

3. Etsi quam maxime expediat, ut frequenti et quotidiana communione utentes venialibus peccatis, saltem plene deliberatis, eorumque affectu sint expertes, sufficit nihilominus, ut culpis mortalibus vacent, cum proposito, se numquam in posterum peccaturos; quo sincero animi proposito, fieri non potest quin quotidie communicates a peccatis etiam venialibus, ab eorumque affectu sensim se expediant;

Here is how EWTN did it, with emphasis added:

3. Although it is especially fitting that those who receive Communion frequently or daily should be free from venial sins, at least from such as are fully deliberate, and from any affection thereto, nevertheless, it is sufficient that they be free from mortal sin, with the purpose of never sinning in the future; and if they have this sincere purpose, it is impossible by [sic] that daily communicants should gradually free themselves even from venial sins, and from all affection thereto.

Shaw points to a serious problem.  The translation makes a hash of what the Latin wants to convey, namely, that reception of Communion helps to over come venial sins.  The EWTN translation ought to read, typo corrected:

… it is not possible BUT that daily communicants should gradually free themselves even from venial sins, and from all affection thereto.

or else:

… it is bound to happen that daily communicants should gradually free themselves even from venial sins, and from all affection thereto.

Clearly there was a typo, probably the result of scanning the document.

Now… forget about that Holy Communion and venial sin thing… we all know that part!  Instead, focus on the double negative!  Latin is comfortable with multiple-negatives, whereas English is less so.  Also, Latin like the impersonal constructions more than English.

On his blog Shaw points out the nonsensical EWTN translation but I think we can tweak it and get extra mileage from it.

Fieri non potest” is literally, “it is not possible that it happen (… that)”, which would be followed with some consequent result.  In this case “fieri non potest” is followed by a clause introduced by quin .  Quin is a compound of quî + ne or “how” + “not”.  (“How does it not happen that…?” in order to state a positive assertion.)  Thus “Fieri non potest quin, etc.” gives us something like “it is not possible that daily communicants should not gradually free themselves…”.  Put another way, with that double negative at work, we could say “It is bound to happen that daily communicants will gradually free themselves…”

That fieri non potest quin … “it cannot happen but that” or “it cannot happen otherwise than that” or even “it is sure to happen that…” construction isn’t exactly rare.  Cicero uses it often.

“But Father! But Father!”, some of you Latin students are eagerly shouting, “How can you stop now?  How can you not break this  down a bit more! We all know that all readers here love Latin grammar and will hang on your every word! Surely it cannot be other than that everyone here will read every syllable!”

If you insist.

Since I am under the gun to write a couple talks, but I have too much to do and writing a talk is on my mind, “Fieri non potest quin allocutionem suam scripserit.”, would assert a positive through the double-negative: “It cannot be but that he has written his talk.”  On the other hand, “Fieri non potest quin allocutionem suam non scripserit.”, would assert the negative: “It cannot be but that he has not written his talk.”  Get it?  On the other hand, “Fieri non potest ut suam allocutionem non scripserit” would deny the negative and mean “It is not possible that he has not written his talk.”  But going on “Fieri non potest ut suam allocutionem scripserit.” would deny the positive and mean “It is not possible that he has written his talk”.  Easy, right?

Again, Latin likes impersonal phrases. However, a personal way of using this construction would be “facere non possum… I can not do other than…” or, in the case of these communicants “facere non possunt… they are bound to”.

I think you get the impact of the construction now.  Thus endeth the lesson.

That said, it is now impossible that I not finish and post this entry.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. teomatteo says:

    … but I don’t insist!!! [Surrrre you don’t.]

  2. disco says:

    I didn’t not misunderstand any of this. [How could it be but that everyone understands?]

  3. wmeyer says:

    Being, as we are, over 100 year distant from the commonplace use of McGuffey’s readers, and perhaps 50 years from that time when Latin in high school was fundamental, I dare say that there remain few of us (and none young) who would comfortably write, or even read, double negatives, other than as errors.

    But then, most recent graduates of high school, or even university, might find that statement hard to parse….

  4. On a side note, it cannot be doubted but that (haudquaquam dubitandum est quin) some of you have heard the old chestnut about the English scholar at a conference going on about English having double-negatives for a positive, but no double-positives for a negative. After a while one of the listeners says impatiently, “Yah yah…”.

  5. Supertradmum says:

    wmeyer and Fr. Z, I do not disagree.

    In fact, I never disagree concerning the fact that I do not use the double or multiple negatives infrequently.

  6. Patruus says:

    Google reveals ample attestation for “but that” in the passage in question – http://goo.gl/JDKME

  7. Kerry says:

    “Quin is a compound of quî + ne or “how” + “not” In Spanish, ‘como no’ means “of course”. But literally it is, “how not”. On cannot but help not but to be intrigued, no?

  8. fvhale says:

    King James Bible, Luke 17,1: Then said he unto the disciples, It is impossible but that offences will come: but woe unto him, through whom they come!

  9. truthfinder says:

    English used to be quite comfortable with double (or more) negatives until about the Early Modern Period. The Canterbury Tales is a swell example of this. And this is a timely post to boot, as I was just reading something by Pius X on daily Communicants and their obligation, or lack thereof, to go to weekly Confession if they were free from mortal sins.

  10. The Cobbler says:

    “I dare say that there remain few of us (and none young) who would comfortably write, or even read, double negatives, other than as errors.”
    As a young person, I wouldn’t say that my kind never use double negatives both comfortably and correctly.

    The bigger issue is that next to none of the turns of phrase that can be comfortably doubly negative are also the simple turns of phrase that dominate modern English. Anything more subtle than “not never” or “doesn’t not”, either of which borders on a sort of inverse of redundancy, is beyond what most Americans will say not so much because most Americans are too stupid as because most Americans prefer overly straightforward and blunt speech wherein if one must string more thoughts together it shall be done in the manner of a run-on sentence.


  11. Pedantic Classicist says:

    Nemo dubitabit quin omnia haec scitule scripta sint. ;)

    ALSO: what’s wrong with Latin hash?? I rather like it sometimes. Tasty! MUCH better than Spartan gruel!

    TANDEM….: yeah, yeah, I heard that chestnut, though I prefer Peter Kreeft’s version where it’s an old Talmudic scholar giving that answer to a pesky philosopher.

    …..ALIQUANDO! btw, the sentiment that got mangled is certainly comforting. And true, from my experience. There’s nothing like grace.

  12. Gregory DiPippo says:

    Optime Pater,

    Juste luctaris et contendis ut particula et modus conjunctivus recte adhibeantur et intelligantur; idem fac, obsecro, pro lingua anglica et scribe:

    Wherein it is not possible but that Fr. Z rant! (modo conjunctivo, sine S) [yah.. yah..]

    et vale in Domino!

  13. Andrew says:

    Quid moror hic? Quin abeam?

  14. pseudomodo says:

    As old Queen Vicky would say. “We are unamused, are we not?

    And I would say, “I am not unimpressed!”

  15. THREEHEARTS says:

    Did not Pius also say in the Mystical Body of Christ, “those who communicate daily, should also confess daily”?

  16. jaykay says:

    Nightmares of my final school-leaving (State) Latin exam have just resurfaced. I was never happy with the “quin” construction (well, I do not deny but that my inherent laziness played not a small part therein) and of course it came up in the grammar part of the paper. Probably “quominus” was there as well to compound the joy.

    Cicero’s “Pro Archia poeta” was the compulsory text for that exam cycle with its beautiful opening line containing the clause: “… in qua me non infiteor mediocriter esse versatum…”

    Not quite a double negative, is it? But something along those lines.

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