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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