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For example, in the phrase:

John told Mary something unexpected and thoroughly unsettling - but in the best way a person can be unsettled

Is there something wrong (meaning-wise) with this? Can the words unsettling and unsettled be used this way? (By the way, I have a slight feeling the second occurrence in particular is a bit off).

The context, in case it's not evident, is John telling Mary something she didn't expect, something John wouldn't normally say, which made her feel very surprised, but in a clearly positive way.

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    I think you'd be stretching a point - nobody ever really wants to be "unsettled", which is why your example usage is only remotely credible because you've specifically added the clarification but in the best way a person can be unsettled. But for me at least that's nowhere near enough - you'd probably need another whole sentence (or a paragraph or more) explaining how Mary could possibly find "being unsettled" to be a positive experience. Without that, it's just confusing. – FumbleFingers Jun 2 '16 at 12:07
  • Your sentence expresses more the situation that "Mary" got some very bad news (unsettling news), but it was the best possible version of very bad news - not that the news was in any form positive. So your context is more like - "John was in a car crash, but he escaped with minor cuts and bruises instead of dying" type situation. – Allan S. Hansen Jun 2 '16 at 12:37
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I don't think your example can use unsettled in a positive way, because it appears to use the definition of unsettled meaning "Nervous or worried"

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/unsettled

Popularity: Bottom 40% of words
Simple Definition of unsettled
: feeling nervous, upset, or worried : not comfortable
: not lived in by people : not inhabited or populated
: not yet finally decided or dealt with
Source: Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary
Examples: unsettled in a sentence

Full Definition of unsettled
:  not settled: as
a (1) :  not calm or tranquil :  disturbed <unsettled political conditions> (2) :  likely to vary widely especially in the near future :  variable <unsettled weather> (3) :  not settled down <unsettled dust>
b (1) :  not decided or determined :  doubtful <an unsettled state of mind> (2) :  not resolved or worked out :  undecided <an unsettled question>
c :  characterized by irregularity <an unsettled life>
d :  not inhabited or populated <unsettled land>
e :  mentally unbalanced
f (1) :  not disposed of according to law <an unsettled estate> (2) :  not paid or discharged <unsettled debts>

However, one can imagine situations where someone might desire or prefer to be unsettled, in the simple sense of "not settled", eg

"I was an Air Force kid, and moved constantly. Some kids would have hated it but I loved my unsettled childhood - I got to see so much more of the world."

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  • I believe that last example is using unsettled in an ironic sense. In the same way I might claim that I rather enjoyed being terrified on a roller coaster. – WS2 Jun 2 '16 at 12:59
  • In that sense, it sort of means "excited" then, i think. – Max Williams Jun 2 '16 at 13:13
  • Irony = the expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect. In the case of unsettled it employs irony in a better-than-usual way, since the word can be implied to have the meaning of not-settled. – WS2 Jun 2 '16 at 15:11
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It seems like the writer is trying to indicate that Mary was suddenly able to appreciate a new perspective. I think unsettled suggests an unpleasant emotional state too strongly for this to be a good usage. We might praise a haunted house or scary movie as unsettling because in that case we want a taste of the unpleasant. I would say Mary was probably delightfully disoriented.

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The words unsettling and unsettled are the grammatical opposites of settling and settled. Many words synonymous to unsettling have connotations that suggest there is more to being unsettled than merely being uncomfortable and that there are positive states associated with being unsettled. In fact, many emotional states could be considered opposite to being settled.

Example. When Stravinsky's Rite of Spring premiered in the early 20th century, the crowd was so agitated by the poignant dissonance, that there was a riot. This agitation was certainly unsettling and the riotous crowd was certainly unsettled. Whether or not the event was a positive success, that is a critical question of taste. However, people are still discussing it approximately one century later.

Consider the implications of your sentence if we substitute unsettling for provocative and unsettled for touched.

John told Mary something unexpected and thoroughly provocative - but in the best way a person can be touched.

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