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Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I started to feel like the language (or languages in general) are being misused.

We usually say something like: "not good", "not tall", "not clear". Is that a correct way to use a language? Shouldn't we always use antonyms and say "bad", "short" or "muddy". I know it is not the same being "not good" and "bad", the "not good" is somewhere in the middle between "good" and "bad", but it still feels odd to me.

Are there any resources on how EXACTLY a language has to be used? Or at least tried to be used?

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    I don't think there's any general resource on this. The nuances are something you learn from experience.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jun 20 at 22:37
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    You do seem to understand the difference between "not good" and "bad". What makes you think others are misusing it? Do you have examples?
    – Barmar
    Commented Jun 20 at 22:38
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    Having the option to be more precise or more vague in describing things is extremely valuable, both as a matter of diplomacy and as a matter of broadening the array of nuance that language allows a speaker or writer to capture. Using negation of a broad descriptive term rather than a more specific (and in that sense positive) descriptive term enriches our language choices, even though it (like passive constructions) may at times be subject to misuse by meaning muddiers, responsibility evaders, and other malefactors. In many cases, I suspect, exactness is actually an enemy of art and truth.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jun 20 at 23:01
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    English has no 'Academy' formulating rules on how it is to be used, and your examples are not 'misuse'. Calling something 'not very good' can be a softer criticism than saying outright that it's 'bad'. Also, 'muddy' isn't the only possible antonym of 'clear'. Commented Jun 21 at 7:23
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    Not sure this is an English matter, the French are fond of expressions like "pas mal" (not bad), the ancient Greeks and Romans used it, the Germans say "nicht gut", although Chinese is slightly different to the European (maybe a cultural thing?).
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jun 21 at 8:25

1 Answer 1

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The general rule is that when you have antonyms X and Y, and they represent the ends of a spectrum of values, "not X" means anything along the spectrum that excludes that value.

So if you have a spectrum like small, medium, and large, "not small" encompasses both medium and large, while "not large" is both small and medium. You can even have "not medium", which means either small or large, but this category tends to be less useful in many contexts.

The only time that "not X" is essentially the same as "Y" is when they represent a binary choice rather than parts of a spectrum.

It's also common to use "not X" when you don't need to be definite. If you're expecting a big item, and someone gives you a tiny item, you can say "That's not big". There's no need to be specific about how far it is from big, what you want to emphasize is that it doesn't meet the required bigness criteria.

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  • 'The only time that "not X" is essentially the same as "Y" is when they represent a binary choice' ... Very true. Litotes is common. 'Not bad' often means 'pretty good'. 'It’s not rocket science' usually means it's pretty easy. 'Not the sharpest knife in the box' doesn't mean second or third sharpest either. Commented Jun 21 at 13:58
  • As you show, there are also lots of idioms that make use of this construction. While their genesis is the general idea I describe, they've taken on their own nuances. Many of them include some sarcasm.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jun 21 at 15:10

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