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Today, I am reading the book Freedom for the Thought That We Hate. In Chapter 1, the author talks about the press industry in the 18th century:

The newspapers of eighteenth-century America were raggle-taggle affairs, nothing like the highly capitalized metropolitan press known to us. ... The papers were highly partisan, the editors often political party men. ... There was little pretense of objectivity.

When I saw pretense means "a way of behaving that is intended to deceive people," I had the following reasoning of the sentence's meaning in my mind:

  • Alrighty. Since "pretense" means the above, so I thought "pretense of objectivity" means "a way of behaving to deceive people so that people would believe there was objectivity".
  • I usually interpret "little" as "almost no".
  • Therefore, I thought the whole sentence was trying to state that "there was almost no such deceiving behavior." In other words, that means, back to the 18th century, the newspapers didn't have to deceive people to make them believe they had objectivity in the news.
  • Then why did the newspapers at that time didn't deceive their readers? There can be two cases, in my opinion:
    1. There was almost no objectivity in the news but the newspapers didn't care about the readers' feelings, so they never bother to make an effort to deceive the readers.
    2. There was objectivity in the news so it made no sense for the newspapers to "deceive the readers to make them believe so" because the reality was already that way.

But when I looked at the Chinese version of this book, the translation means the case #1: there was almost no objectivity. When we look back at the context of this sentence ("The papers were highly partisan"), it also makes a lot of sense that "There was little pretense of objectivity" means "there was almost no objectivity".

So why should this sentence be understood as the first meaning, whereas I think the second meaning is also possible? Which part was I wrong about?

I totally understand that learning a language is not like learning math or logic. But sometimes I have to learn the individual words first, then put them together and try to figure out the meaning using logic. Obviously, it didn't work quite well in this sentence.

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  • You do have to learn the words first; and a critical word here is partisan. The newspapers, the paragraph is saying, are primarily taking sides (of one political party or another), "making no pretense"--that is, not pretending--to offer objective news. (They do care about their readers, though.)
    – Xanne
    Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 7:26

2 Answers 2

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The sentence "The papers were highly partisan" has already told you that the papers weren't objective. The sentence you're asking about is expressing an additional detail: not only were they partisan, they didn't even try much to look neutral. ("Little" here modifies "pretense", not objectivity or the lack of objectivity.) Your second interpretation would contradict what had already been said.

Something that looks similar and does convey the sort of meaning you're thinking of is "He isn't pretending to be nice: he is a genuinely nice man." Compare this with "He isn't a nice man. He doesn't even pretend to be nice." Both of these assert a lack of pretense; the wording and context are important, distinguishing the one describing a nice man from the one describing a not-nice man.

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The rhetorical figure of speech used in the sentence "There was little pretense of objectivity" is called litotes (pronounced lī′tə-tēz′, lĭt′ə-, lī-tō′tēz, with the third pronunciation being my personal choice).

Think of litotes as "two negatives make a positive." Saying "little pretense" instead of "much pretense" may seem to be a bit "backwards," but it is really quite common. Some examples:

  • There was no small crowd on the opening day of the new supermarket.
  • His effort to finish the project was no mean feat.
  • Her part in the play as a shrill and offensive virago did not go unnoticed by the critics.

Another was of expressing the sentence in question positively is:

  • There was an obvious presence of subjectivity.

Or,

  • The presence of subjectivity was clearly obvious.

In conclusion, the phrase "no pretense of objectivity" is the litotic way of saying "an obvious display of subjectivity." The assumption behind the expression, whether expressed negatively or positively, is that newspapers should be objective, not subjective, in their reportage.

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  • is called a litote...
    – Lambie
    Commented May 31, 2023 at 13:46
  • @Lambie: Sorry, litotes can serve as singular or plural. That the word ends in "S" is irrelevant. Don Commented May 31, 2023 at 20:19
  • You have now changed it to an adjectival version. Fine. You had: "There was little pretense of objectivity" is called litotes". So, there it has to be a litote. The way you had it is not grammatical.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 0:10
  • @Lambie: I'm willing to agree to disagree with you, agreeably. Don Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 3:52

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