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I came across an expression, “If not impossibly so” in the review of movie, “Magic Mike” under the title of “The body politic” in New York Times (June 28). The phrase appears in the following sentence:

“The hard-working Mr. Tatum is scarcely non-Hollywood. – He’s pretty, if not impossibly so, with the looks of the heartthrob next door and the wrestler’s neck, jug-handle ears and smiles that help bring him down to earth. Unlike Matt Damon, though, Mr. Tatum hasn’t yet played smart on screen.”

I understand ‘If not impossibly so,’ is a phrase to show the author’s reservation from making a conclusive remark, but I feel somewhat redundant and circumlocutory in this double-negative construction.

What does “If not impossibly so” exactly mean? What is the added value of using this phrase? Is this a phrase used in your daily conversation?

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1 Answer 1

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Oishi-san, the phrase is clear to native speakers as it stands, and your understanding about it showing the author's reservation from making a conclusive remark is correct. This, though, is what we would call understatement, which is a form of reserve, and it is also a form of litotes, which consists of stating a positive assessment using a negative construction. "That's not a bad idea," is one way of saying something is a good idea, and may even be stronger than its simple positive cousin.

That said, "if not impossibly so," is used to distance Mr. Tatum's looks from the iconic "pretty-boy" Hollywood stereotype. It means that while he is by any standard good-looking, his looks still have a more down-to-earth quality that makes him more human, and the point of the passage is to say that the flaws may in fact make him all the more appealing.

The phrase "if not impossibly so" is not in itself common, but the "if not [complement]" construction certainly is. Compare:

Mitt Romney is certainly rich, if not in the same league as Bill Gates.

He was tired, if not actually exhausted, but still he pressed on.

It was silly, if not downright absurd, for me to think Carol would return my affections.

As used in your passage, this is probably also a form of metanoia, which is a rhetorical device used to correct oneself in mid-sentence for various purposes, among them to strengthen an impression. Here it raises a topic in the negative, then dismisses it, but the effect of having spoken it at all leaves an impression. Mr. Tatum is, the writer suggests, worthy of a place in the pantheon of beautiful people.

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As usual, great answer. No grammar book explains this things. +100 –  user19148 Jul 15 '12 at 13:24
    
Robusto-san. I can’t be gladder to get your clear-cut but careful answer. Thanks to your initial guidance, I’ve been with EL&U for one year and seven months, and fully enjoying the fruits of interaction with other members. Your input on Metanoia is tremendously informative. By the way, I was aware of ‘if not +complement’ form, but felt somewhat uneasy with this specific ‘not+impossible’ combination, perhaps because I’ve been too much influenced by an old teacher who kept saying ‘Don’t use double negative form in English composition. It looks awkward.’ in the class 66 years ago, –  Yoichi Oishi Jul 16 '12 at 0:10
    
- though I know ‘impossibly’ here doesn’t mean ‘not possible.’ –  Yoichi Oishi Jul 16 '12 at 0:10
    
@Oishi-san: I am happy to help. Your questions are invariably interesting and usually point to interesting quirks about the English language. –  Robusto Jul 17 '12 at 2:31

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