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I had recently come across a sentence that said,

The lack of representation for LGBTQ people and women of color is abysmal.

Page 241 of Broken Horses, by Brandi Carlile.

Considering that the rest of the page was talking about how the music industry was male-dominated business, I got confused. I had previously thought that "abysmal" meant poor quality, so when the sentence says "the lack of representation is abysmal", does it actually mean the representation was great? Or is that interpretation wrong?

From the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

immeasurably low or wretched: extremely poor or bad

suggesting that the lack is very low, describing the lack itself, while some other sources say

extremely bad; appalling

suggesting that 'abysmal' describes how people see the lack of representation and/or what they think about it, not the actual quality of the lack.

When both definitions are used (the lack of representation is appalling and low), I think it means the opposite of what the author is trying to say. Is this just a context thing, where you have to know the context to know what the author means?

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    Here's a chart showing just how often the sequence the abysmal lack of [something] occurs in English. What's the problem? In your cited context the "head" noun is lack, so that's what's being described as "abysmal" (terrible, awful, lamentable), not the "representation" (which is lacking). Mar 30 at 17:05
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    (There's nothing "clunky" about the cited text. It's just ordinary use of English.) Mar 30 at 17:11
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    @FumbleFingers How lovely to hear your voice again...I hope you are healthy and in good spirits...You are one of the people I would hope to see as a Mod. Did you miss the elections, or just not interested in being one? Mar 30 at 17:25
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    There seems to be a misapprehension that 'two negative concepts / views / ... in a sentence is somehow wrong'. Firstly, negation in a sentence is linguistically the use of a negating element such as 'not', 'never'. There are other less obvious triggers such as 'seldom'. Use of 'negative' to mean 'antipathetic' is unhelpful in discussing linguistics (as here). And with that sense, 'War is bad' surely shows that two 'cons' can be used together with no problem. // Secondly, the 'never use two negatives in a sentence' mantra is far too broad-brush (and has been discussed before on ELU). Mar 30 at 18:22
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    @Edwin: Bravo. I might add that while lack is negative, it only negates what's in its scope; and abysmal is not a negative. Mar 30 at 19:46

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In this sentence, abysmal is an adjective that describes the noun lack.

With more pedestrian pairings such as red car or quiet fan, the adjective can migrate to the end of the phrase.

  • This is a red car. That is a quiet fan.
  • This car is red. That fan is quiet.

This also works when the adjective intensifies the sense of the noun.

  • He achieved tremendous success.
  • The success he achieved was tremendous.

The same commonly holds when the noun has a negative polarity and a negative adjective acts to intensify the negativity.

  • The terrible discolouration affected sales.
  • The discolouration that affected sales was terrible.

In both sentences, terrible acts to intensify the sense of discolouration. Now, one might argue that grammatically, terrible can act directly on discolouration: if a 'good' discolouration is one where the colour has changed a lot, then a 'terrible' discolouration must be an unsuccessful discolouration, one where the colour has remained largely unblemished. However, the much stronger tendency is to treat the adjective as an intensifier. The terrible discolouration is pitted against an ordinary discolouration, not a 'good' one.

More to the point, though, even the quantity of discolouration isn't typically the main purpose of calling it "terrible". The intensely negative adjective is more likely to refer to the emotional or other impact that the discolouration has produced - the defacing of something of sentimental value, Mr Bean's destruction of an irreplaceable work of art, or other things of that nature.

Your example is similar. Strictly-speaking, you can argue for grammatical ambiguity. But in common usage, an "abysmal" lack communicates more about the effect of the lack, than about the mere objective extent of the lack.

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The lack of representation for LGBTQ people and women of color is abysmal.

You have parsed the sentence wrongly: It is not "the lack" that is abysmal; it is the subject of the sentence is abysmal and the subject is {The lack of representation for LGBTQ people and women of color}.

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