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When somebody uses the phrase "not uncommon", do they mean "common" because of the double negative?

I was recently informed that "not uncommon" could imply that something was anything but uncommon (e.g. rare), whereas I thought that rare would be a subset of uncommon and that saying it was not uncommon must mean it is common.

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I think in US english, double negative doesn't make positive –  Srinivas Reddy Thatiparthy Dec 3 '10 at 4:14
4  
@Srinivas: depends on the context. In this case, it does. –  Steve Melnikoff Dec 3 '10 at 8:47
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Only approximately, not unequivocally. –  Peter Shor Jul 25 '12 at 14:54
    
A man went to the doctor with a strange complaint. "Well it's like this Doc, when I drive to work in the morning through the country lanes I start to sing 'The green green grass of home'. If I see a cat then it's 'What's new, pussy cat?'. It's so embarrassing, even when I'm asleep and dreaming, I still keep singing. Last night, it was 'Delilah', and my wife was not amused!" "Yes, it would appear that you have the early symptoms of Tom Jones syndrome." "Well I've never heard of that, is it common?" asked the man. "It's not unusual," replied the doctor. –  Patrick M Sep 12 at 21:41

6 Answers 6

up vote 16 down vote accepted

First, I think a little more context may be needed to appropriately answer your question since it seems whoever you've been talking to has what I would consider to be a non-standard usage of it. That being said, here's my best cut.

In standard usage, the phrase "not uncommon" typically means something to the effect of "more frequent than uncommon". That is, it occurs too frequently to be considered "uncommon", but not necessarily so frequently as to be labeled "common".

However, in certain contexts where things are partitioned using discrete, well defined terms "uncommon", "rare", etc. it would be conceivable that they would mean "anything other than uncommon". The one example that jumps out at me is RPG games like World of Warcraft where item quality is labeled using terms like "rare", "uncommon", "common", etc. In a case like this, saying that something is "not uncommon" would potentially allow for something labeled as "rare" as well as something labeled as "common"

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The rarity system can also be found in Trading Card Game. –  Eldroß Dec 3 '10 at 10:08
    
The context is hard to explain because the discussion that prompted this question was an argument about the meaning of "not uncommon". Your answer explains it clearly for me though. –  staticbeast Dec 3 '10 at 13:43
    
@staticbeast - fair enough. Glad it worked. –  Dusty Dec 3 '10 at 13:45

"not uncommon" is not necessarily the same as common. Compare the following examples:

  • 1-0 is a common final score in soccer (it happens all the time)

  • 8-7 is an uncommon final score in soccer (it rarely happens)

  • 5-0 is not an uncommon final score in soccer (it doesn't happen all the time, but it's not rare either).

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I think 1-0, 8-7 and 5-0 is the more ... common notation. I've never seen 1 x 0 before. –  coleopterist Jul 19 '12 at 14:27
    
@coleopterist In Brazil the 1x0 notation is quite common :-) –  b.roth Jul 20 '12 at 9:28
    
I see :) So it's common in Brazil, but not around the world? ;) –  coleopterist Jul 20 '12 at 12:02
    
Maybe not in many countries besides Brazil. I just edited the post to use a more "standard" international notation for soccer/football scores. –  b.roth Jul 25 '12 at 8:15
    
Looks normal to me now - cheers! –  coleopterist Jul 25 '12 at 12:31

To my mind, it is a shaded meaning, not quite common, but not rare. "Not unkind" I would see as much colder than kind, but not actively unkind.

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Not really. It means just what it says it is. It's an attempt at understatement. To baldly say something is common seems to some people too forthright. And, to be fair, there may be a wide gap between what is uncommon and what is common. If the subject is sunny days in Seattle, you may say they are uncommon. But Seattle averages about one day in six with sunshine. So you could say, with some legitimacy, that they are not uncommon since they are experienced with some regularity. Still, you wouldn't really say they were common.

Nevertheless, such constructions are anathema to some champions of clear writing. I remember Eric Blair (George Orwell) mocking them in one of his essays on the English language, positing a sentence like (I'm paraphrasing here) "The not unbrown dog trotted not unslowly along the not unrough road, finally making a not unsmall leap over the not unhigh fence." Or something like that. I was an undergrad at the time, so memory dims. I wish I could remember the name of the essay.

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Describing something by negating its opposite is a way of countering expectations. As in: "You might expect this never happens, but it is not uncommon." Or: "Not bad... for a girl."

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This is an example of a common (and ancient) figure of speech called litotes. Sometimes it conveys no extra meaning (and gets ridiculed as an affectation) but in many cases it does have a distinct meaning.

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protected by RegDwigнt Jul 19 '12 at 15:26

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