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I was reading an answer to a question in this site which started with this phrase:

It is definitely not unheard that people say ...

I feel it is incorrect or at least not a very nice phrase. Since I'm not a native English speaker, I was wondering what is wrong with this phrase (if there is any)? Can we say it uses a double negative and also a strong affirmative word "definitely" in one sentence?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

There’s nothing wrong with the combination of definitely followed by not and un . . . . , but the expression is unheard of, so the sentence would normally occur as

It is definitely not unheard of for people to say ...

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A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit... –  TimLymington Jun 3 '13 at 21:27

It is definitely not unheard that people say ...

The above is a slightly-distorted (and incorrect) version of

It is definitely not unheard for people to say ...

which in effect means

People have been heard to say...

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This (It is definitely not unheard that people say) is not a double negative, which is inherently ungrammatical in standard English (but not in all of its dialects). However, this particular phrase is both ungrammatical (the idiomatic expression not unheard of is incomplete) and poor style (definitely gives unnecessary emphasis). It should be:

It is not unheard of {for people to say / that people say} X.

or

Some people say X.

But we can cut non-native speakers some slack. We don't need to criticize everything that everyone says, regardless of their level of fluency in English. If the answer is understandable, all that needs to be done is to edit the answer to correct the grammar. Non-native speakers who answer questions about English are brave and I applaud them, except when they give incorrect and unhelpful information. Sometimes native speakers are guilty of the same thing. People make mistakes, so we have to be flexible, kind, and understanding, not nasty or overly critical (IMHO).

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While I agree with everything else in your answer, I wouldn't agree that the emphasis that "definitely" gives in the sentence is unnecessary, especially if you want to stress that something is in common use. To me, "It's not unheard of..." suggests that something is quite rare, whereas "It's definitely not unheard of..." suggests that it is more common. –  Matt Mar 27 '13 at 8:19
    
@Matt: If the answer is responding to an assertion that it is {certainly / definitely / undoubtedly} unheard of, then I agree that definitely is an appropriate word, but if it's just a simple response to a simple Q, eg, "Is it unheard of that people say X?", then I think it's too strong. Saying simply that "[It] is in common use" should be emphatic enough. –  user21497 Mar 27 '13 at 8:32

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