The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, December 27, 2021

Patterns that go unnoticed

It’s turning into a bit of a negative end to the year … not because of anything bad happening, just because I find myself deep in a flurry of words beginning with un-. In my last post, I looked at what I’ve now discovered is called litotes; the use of two negatives together to express either irony or a subtle distinction between two absolutes (not uncommon, not unpleasant, etc.). Recently, I’ve been seeing another pattern with un- prefixed words; a kind of passive construction with go + un- + past participle:


It seems to describe events that no one sees or does anything about, things that are missed or ignored. In terms of form, it’s a bit like the get passive that we’re all familiar with, but this time the focus is on the lack of an agent doing anything. Although like most passives, we can add a by to say who didn’t notice or act … and maybe should have.

It’s also another pattern that can be used with a negative – back to litotes again. This seems to work in two ways – to talk about negative actions and events which won’t escape notice or shouldn't escape punishment:

But also to talk about positive actions and events that will be acknowledged or rewarded:


Digging a bit deeper, I realized that as well as the obvious negative verbs beginning with un-, the pattern also occurs with a handful of other verbs that have a negative meaning:

Flicking through the ELT grammar reference books on my shelves, it seems to go unmentioned. If you dig deep enough, it does feature in many dictionary definitions for go, like these from Cambridge and Macmillan, but I'm guessing it's the kind of entry that goes largely unread ...

Cambridge Dictionary

Macmillan Dictionary

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Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Not such an uncommon pattern

I was recently researching the word unproblematic. Before I started looking at the corpus evidence, I expected that it was used to describe something that’s simple, straightforward, and uncontroversial, something that doesn’t throw up any problems. And it is, but …

As I scrolled down the concordance lines, sorting left and right as I often do when I first look at a word, I noticed a chunk of not unproblematic examples. It was a significant, but not huge proportion, so I made a mental note to investigate further when I’d dealt with the more obvious examples. As I started to look in more detail, it soon became clear that those straightforward examples, although they were there – The whole process was simple and unproblematic – were actually in the minority. What I did find was:

not unproblematic

However, the category of 'climate refugees' is not unproblematic.
However, comparing evidence from different surveys is not unproblematic.
This definition is not unproblematic, as it seems to rest on circular reasoning.
However, this approach is not unproblematic, since site reactions can cause distress to patients …

not an unproblematic + noun

Given related debates this is not an unproblematic option either.
Of course, Twitter is not an unproblematic representation of the population.
However, this is not an unproblematic undertaking.

not + (a/an) + adverb + unproblematic

balancing school and extracurricular activities is not always unproblematic
So student visas are not completely unproblematic from this point of view.
it's not an entirely unproblematic development from an editorial standpoint
The study was, indeed not wholly unproblematic
I also concluded that the idea is not so unproblematic as it might appear on first glance.
This popular mixed-mode design is not altogether unproblematic from a measurement error perspective

Miscellaneous other negatives

However, the process has not been unproblematic and has led to controversies
there can be cases where the merger cannot be characterised as unproblematic in advance.
The situation should not be thought of as unproblematic, though
That doesn't make it unproblematic
Princess Jellyfish isn't what you'd call unproblematic, but I really enjoy most of it so far

[All examples from English Web 2020 (enTenTen20) corpus via SketchEngine]

What all of these examples seem to have in common is the idea that something isn’t as simple as you might expect or as it might seem, and that in fact there may be some problems with it.

Delving further into other un- words that come after negatives, I found lots of similar patterns. Here are some of the most frequent combinations:


Although they don’t all work in exactly the same way and you come across different nuances of meaning in different combinations or specific examples, there does seem to be a common generalizable meaning. What many of the not + un- patterns seem to be trying to convey is:

  • a middle ground between the two antonyms – where something isn’t very problematic, common, expected, etc. but neither is it straightforward, rare, unexpected. Where that point along a scale between the two lies varies depends on context, although my feeling is it’s usually nearer to the un-


  • often the idea that something is not quite what you might expect or what it might seem. It may seem unproblematic, uncommon, unexpected, but maybe it’s not quite as much as you’d think.

And of course negatives aren’t limited to un- words – not dissimilar springs to mind – so I’m sure there’s more here to explore.

This all raises the question: have you ever seen this pattern taught, even at advanced levels? I don’t think I’ve seen it, at least not explicitly highlighted. Given it’s clearly not altogether uncommon, it’s certainly been added to my ongoing list of features to get a mention next time I’m writing something relevant.


And for those who're interested:


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