She is a not entirely unintelligent woman


Senior Member
Ukrainian & Russian
She's a not unattractive woman, in some ways. [1]
Such double negative phrases are devices of understatement, She is a not entirely unintelligent woman meaning 'She is a fairly intelligent woman'; similarly, He's not a too sympathetic doctor means 'He's a rather unsympathetic doctor'. The double negative phrases require a gradable adjective or adverb as head, the negation indicating a point between the two extremes of the gradable scale; for [1] the point is somewhere between unattractive and attractive.

(A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language; R. Quirk)

Would you be so kind as to explain to me the following: if 'the negation indicates a point between the two extremes of the gradable scale', why is, for example, She is a not entirely unintelligent woman an understatement, but not a sentence simply indicating that she is somewhere between being entirely unintelligent and fairly intelligent?

  • entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    Well, 'not unintelligent' is not simply a midway point between intelligent and unintelligent; it's not as if you're neutrally saying 'of middling intelligence'. There's a kind of retraction from a point: I can't call her intelligent, as such, but she's getting there. In this way it's understated rather than neutral.

    Often 'understatement' is used of a different thing*: where 'she's got a few quid/bob'** means she's wealthy, or 'she knows a bit about the subject' means she knows a lot. This can also be done with negations; 'she's no fool' meaning she's very savvy, or 'she's not short of a bob or two' again meaning she's wealthy. It is probably unlikely that not un-adjective is used in this way; it will more usually have the first meaning, middling to fairly high in adjective.

    * The technical terms are meiosis and litotes but I can never remember which is which.

    ** bob and quid being slang terms for UK money


    Senior Member
    AE, Español
    Double negatives can have various uses. If I say someone is "not [entirely] unintelligent," I might be trying to say:
    - "Damning with faint praise":He is not as dumb as someone thinks or might think, in which case I'm merely saying he's not an idiot or at least not a complete idiot.
    - "Literal" statement: He is neither particularly dumb, nor particularly smart.
    - Understatement (litotes): He is an intelligent or highly intelligent person.
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