Surprising or Not Surprising

By Maeve Maddox

I’ve become aware of the inexplicable use of the phrase “not unsurprising” in contexts in which a simple “unsurprising” is called for. For example:

Unpresidential, But Not Unsurprising

It’s extremely unfortunate yet not unsurprising that such an attack occurred.

Annoying but not unsurprising.

In each of these examples, the sense is that something might have been expected and is therefore not surprising. Placing “not” in front of “unsurprising” garbles the meaning.

Something is either surprising or not surprising.

surprising: adj. Causing surprise or wonder by its unexpectedness

The word unsurprising may be used instead of the phrase “not surprising.” The OED doesn’t bother to define unsurprising as “not causing surprise,” but it gives this illustration of its use:

Adaptations of Dickens’s works..are meant to make you feel good. This is unsurprising, could be argued that this is exactly how Dickens intends you to feel.

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18 Responses to “Surprising or Not Surprising”

  • venqax

    It seems like the distinction here is pretty easy to think through. Like and not unlike may or may not have a subtle distinction. But like and unlike clearly mean opposite things. So, “not unsurprising” doesn’t work at all when what you mean is either “not surprising” or “unsuprising”. Either of the last two could be re-worded as “it comes as no surprise”. “Not unsurprising” would only work as a clumsy way saying that something DOES indeed come as surprise. Not that English is bound by the rules of algebra, but in this case it is a pretty straightfoward 2-negatives make a positive– so don’t use it if negativity is your meaning. Is that not incorrect?

  • Peter

    I don’t see any particular distinction between “like” and “not unlike”, and similar; the latter is just a sort of humour-added version of the former–rather like Douglas Adams’ writing about a spaceship that “flew through the air in exactly the way that bricks don’t”.

  • Maeve

    I can see “not unsurprising” or “not unsurprisingly” used as litotes (figure of speech in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of the contrary), ex. “The boy with his finger in the dyke was not unhappy to see help arrive,” but I don’t think that is how it’s being used in my examples.

    Fowler doesn’t completely condemn the “not un-” construction because he sees in it a reflection of “the English temperament,” a “stubborn national dislike of putting things too strongly.” His opinion on the matter is that one must “acknowledge that the idiom is allowable, & then to avoid it except when it is more than allowable ”

    British speakers and writers may be able to use “not un-” constructions knowingly and effectively, but I don’t think that the “not unsurprising” in my examples is being used in any ironic sense. I think the the writers imagined that it sounded more elegant than “not surprising.”

    In my view, the “not un-” construction is a stylistic flaw in writing that’s intended to be easily understood.

  • Kathryn

    Well, maybe it is transatlantic (or, possibly, the early influence of Orwell on my thinking–I first read that essay in high school and it made an impression), because to me “not unreasonable” is indistinguishable from “reasonable” and the same with “not unpleasant/pleasant.” Interesting. . .

  • Cecily

    @Kathryn: Gosh, “taboo” is quite strong. COED 2008 defines it more broadly as “a mild or less direct word substituted for one that is harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing.”

    Anyway, clearly “reasonable” and “pleasant” are nice things to be, but “unreasonable” and “unpleasant” are quite strong criticisms, whereas “not unreasonable” and “not unpleasant” are more tactful ways of implying that the person in question is less reasonable and pleasant than one would like.

    I’m still wondering if it’s a trans-Atlantic issue. I know Orwell was British, but he was writing a long time ago and I come across all these formations often enough that I don’t object to them in principle (though I definitely object to some instances).

  • Kathryn

    Cecily–you’d be most welcome! It is a less active group than I could wish, but another outlet for those who enjoy nattering about language.

    I’m not sure I’d class “not unreasonable” and “not unpleasant” as euphemisms, as neither “reasonable” nor “pleasant” strikes me as being “harsh, indelicate or otherwise unpleasant or taboo” (the latter phrase is from the Webster’s Third New International definition of euphemism).

  • Cecily

    Some “not un-” formations are euphemisms, e.g. “not unpleasant” and “not unreasonable”. Are they more acceptable?

  • Cecily

    @Keith: The final sentence of my first post was a tongue-in-cheek exaggeration; “not uncommon” would have been more accurate. 😉

    I take your point about the difference between gradations of surprise being valid, but not of unsurprise, but idioms are rarely entirely logical.

    @Kathryn: I might join you there (I haven’t explored the groups much).

  • Kathryn

    Cecily, the objection is more Orwell’s than mine. I might well use any of the “not un” formations if I thought that doing so made sense in the context of a particular piece of writing. But I don’t use them often, in part because I don’t see an articulable distinction between the meanings of like and not unlike, so the latter is to me a rhetorical flourish–and I don’t affect a beaux arts written style.

    By the way–I’m cruising over to the Grammar Geeks group on LinkedIn to ask people to state the distinction between surprising and not unsurprising. Impossible to make it a scientific survey, but I’ll do my best to keep it neutral. . .

  • Keith

    I think the point here is that the examples in the original post seem to ‘want’ to mean “unsurprising” – adding the “not” thereby gives the opposite meaning “surprising”, which makes no sense:

    “Unpresidential, But Surprising
    It’s extremely unfortunate yet surprising that such an attack occurred.
    Annoying but surprising.”

    “Not unlike” and the other examples given by subsequent posters are correct, because they are relative gradations of similarity or difference. Unsurprising cannot be used relatively, as it is an absence of surprise, not a ‘presence’ of a variable degree of ‘unsurprisingness’. Surprising, on the other hand, can of course be relative.

    Cecily: “and it’s not unsurprising to hear the phrase here” means what? The context seems to suggest that it’s not a surprise (to you), but (according to your own definition) you are actually saying that it’s “somewhat improbable” and therefore, I would venture, slightly surprising.

  • Cecily

    @Kathryn: Do you object to “not unusual” as well?

  • Kathryn

    Mm, true enough. But the “not un-” formation he used as an example of bad writing was, in fact, “not unlike.” (Admittedly, used in an appalling sentence in which roughly every 4th word was “not”–an extreme example indeed.) His point was that “not unsurprising” means the same as “surprising,” and “not unlike” means the same as “like.” I recognize that you disagree, and I understand your point. I suspect, however, that if you asked ten different people to state the distinction between surprising and not unsurprising you would get ten different explanations–one of which would be “there is none.” I certainly would not have included “somewhat improbable” in an explanation of not unsurprising. If the meaning of a phrase is not fairly universally agreed on, it is not going to communicate what the writer intended.

  • Cecily

    @Kathryn: Orwell’s examples aren’t comparable: unblack, unsmall and ungreen are not words, whereas unsurprising, unusual, uncommon and unlike are.

  • Kathryn

    In a footnote in his “Politics and the English Language” ( ), George Orwell noted that “One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.” He had a point–although the “not un-” construction can be effective when used very sparingly, it tends to become a habit, at which point it becomes an irritant to the reader. And that’s when it’s used correctly. I have to agree with Maeve, that in each of the examples she gave, the literal meaning of the construction is probably not the meaning the author intended. As a result, even if the writer actually intended to use it correctly, each of those sentences is confusing to the careful reader.

  • Cecily

    @Cesar: I agree, and nor does it have the same meaning as “unlike”.

    All these phrases are gradations along a scale; they are not contradictory or tautologous.

  • Cesar

    But what about “not unlike”? I’m positive it doesn’t have the same intended meaning as simply saying “like”…

  • Cecily

    Syntactically, “not unsurprising” is equivalent to “not unusual” and “not uncommon”. Do you object to those too?

  • Cecily

    When I hear, or occasionally use “not unsurprising”, it does NOT mean the same as “unsurprising”, and in the examples above, one can’t be certain it does either.

    To me, there are 3 grades of surprise:
    * “surprising” means extraordinary, astonishing, completely unexpected.

    * “not unsurprising” means somewhat improbable, but not extraordinary.

    * “unsurprising” means almost to be expected.

    I wonder if it’s an AmE/BrE difference? I’m in England, and it’s not unsurprising to hear the phrase here.

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