Jane Austen once said:

When Mr. Collins said any thing of which his wife might reasonably be ashamed, which certainly was not unseldom, she involuntarily turned her eye on Charlotte.

Now readers of the book will know Mr Collins is pretty shameless and socially inept, yet if we remove the double negative it becomes

When Mr. Collins said any thing of which his wife might reasonably be ashamed, which certainly was seldom, she involuntarily turned her eye on Charlotte.

which is certainly not what the author intended (I assume). Does anybody have an explanation for this?

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    Presumably she meant to say "wasn't not unseldom." – Sven Yargs Feb 14 '14 at 17:02
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    In language (unlike mathematics) a double negative of a proposition is not the proposition. For instance, I do not hate ice cream does not mean that you like it. This is the same kind of thing. The term, "not unseldom" is not the same as "seldom" . – Baby Dragon Feb 15 '14 at 2:45

Not unseldom is in fact a stock phrase, predating Austen, and meaning "not rarely" or "not infrequently".

Indeed, the OED's entry for unseldom defines it solely in terms of this phrase:

not unseldom (misused for), not rarely, not infrequently.

It notes further, "Dutch niet onzelden is similarly used." and its citations range from before 1657 to 1882 (Pride and Prejudice was of course published in 1813, well within that range).

Of the various reasons we may have to use double-negation, I suspect the aim here was de-emphasis (i.e. "not unheard of" means something is indeed heard of, but de-emphasises that so as to suggest there may still be a rarity), that got muddled in an attempt to do so with a word that best fits through single-negation. That though is a matter of what happened with the word some 150 years or more before Austen.

In any case, by Austen's time it was an idiom best understood as having its own definition, rather than through analysing its components.

Not that Austen didn't use no double negation of her own. Austen's own double-negative constructions are generally of the sort of de-emphasising use for undertatement I suggest may have led to not unseldom coming into existence, and so it suits her well. She tends to use them with a certain gently mocking wryness, as again this example shows, so while a stock phrase rather than being Austen's construct, it is a phrase that suits her style well.

Ironically, understatement can have a nett effect of focusing our mind on something, and so while it de-emphasises on one level, it actually ephasises at a subconcious level. This is called litotes in rhetorical theory, and something Austen was adept at.

  • Your "deemphasis" theory is interesting. I'll agree that it does seem to have that effect. But what makes that truly interesting is that in dialects that actually use negative concord, it is typically used for emphasis. – T.E.D. Feb 14 '14 at 15:09
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    @T.E.D. even more interesting is that you can combine them without even changing register; "I take no shit from no-one, so it ain't unusual that I get in a fight". Generally, if two (or more) negatives lead to negative they emphasise and if they lead to a positive they de-emphasise, but it's worth noting that with full negative concord, it may be the only way to say something. Different types of negative also have an effect on nuance. It's not impossible (see what I did there?) that "not unseldom" actually goes back to Middle English's negative concord, though I doubt it. – Jon Hanna Feb 14 '14 at 15:21
  • @T.E.D. of course, this can leave us with statements where we aren't sure of the meaning, even with knowledge of how the speaker or writer's dialect uses double negatives. That is one reason in itself to avoid them in formal English, and sometimes one reason in itself to use them (a deleted answer mentioned Kissinger, and while I don't think the pattern is applicable, Kissinger certainly liked being hard to pin down to something). – Jon Hanna Feb 14 '14 at 15:24
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    This answer is not a little bit wonderful. +1 – BrianH Feb 14 '14 at 18:37
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    +1 for "Not that Austen didn't use no double negation of her own" – Cruncher Feb 14 '14 at 20:22

When an author uses a phrase like "not uncommon" they mean to express something in between common and seldom. It's not uncommon for this to happen, means it happens, not commonly, and not seldom, but somewhere in between.

George RR Martin often has his characters saying "You're not wrong..." This is similar. It usually means something like, "I can't say you're statement is inaccurate, but it's also missing some key points."

  • That is not the only reason that double negatives might be used. I would hold that when Austen uses this it is often an extension of this (she plays things down precisely to give focus on them, as a form of litotes). When anyone (author or not) uses "not unseldom" though they are using a stock phrase in fact means (confusingly enough) unseldom, which is the opposite of what you talk about here. – Jon Hanna Nov 13 '15 at 10:41

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