A police officer was recently reported as saying, “The community [must be able to] go about its daily business not unduly impacted by demonstrations taking place.” She was referring to demonstrations against President Trump whilst he was in Britain. Cue the grammar police attack of the vapours for her use of ‘not un…’
George Orwell was a leading literary figure who riled against this way of phrasing things – in fact he felt it should be banned; would you, he asked, write about a ‘not un-black dog?’ Obviously not! But he had got his own grammar a bit wrong, as who would refer to ‘an un-black dog’ in the first place, let alone a ‘not un-black’ one?
Jane Austen, by contrast, used the format without any qualms in Mansfield Park where Fanny was ‘not unamused’ by the activities of her associates. I think readers can appreciate the difference between being laugh-out-loud amused at their antics and being wryly and privately entertained.
It is true that in English there is a general rule against using a double negative – I do not like that, compared with the French je ne l’aime pas (literally – I not it like not). We have been taught to tease people who use them that a double negative is a positive. However a double negative has always had a place in a nuanced use of the language. What the police officer said, whilst admittedly rather inelegant (why say impacted when you mean disrupted?), is very different from her saying the community should be ‘duly impacted/ disrupted.’ What she meant, and what we all understand, is that some disruption was inevitable, but should be kept to a minimum. (What the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English calls a ‘weak affirmative.’)
This is a perfectly reasonable position to take. Or at least, in my opinion, a not unreasonable one.
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