May 17, 2005

"still unpacked": threat or menace?

Mark's description of the use of still unpacked to mean "not yet unpacked" as an "insidious overnegation" suggests he concurs with my characterization of the construction as a "glaring error."

Not so fast, says the OED's Jesse Sheidlower: "unpacked doesn't mean what you think it means."

Jesse and Ben Zimmer both wrote to point out that the construction is extremely common, not just on the Web, as Mark showed, but in the OED's files and in books by well-known authors that Ben located in an Amazon search. A few examples of each type:

1994 B. Anderson All Nice Girls ii. 22 The brown suitcase returned with his receipt from Patient's Effects remained unpacked, stowed deep in Win's wardrobe.

1994 Sports Illustr. 29 Aug. 53 Patty comes into the garage, seeking an extension cord from one of the many still unpacked boxes.

1995 N. Blincoe Acid Casuals i. 4 She stepped over the suitcases that remained unpacked on the floor of the apartment.

2002 Chron. Higher Educ. 5 Apr. A13 His small, semidetached house there has been sold--there was no point in keeping it....Besides, he grins, it's full of unpacked boxes from 1984.

2004 National Rev. 31 May 52, I have sworn never to move house again, having boxes still unpacked from our last move twelve years ago.

There are boxes of books, still unpacked; it is obviously newly rented.(Race, by Studs Terkel)

Then Mother was bored with music, searching now for one of her books. So many books still unpacked. (Blonde: A Novel, by Joyce Carol Oates)

I recall that I was sitting on the edge of a chair in our still-unpacked kitchen, holding my huge body together with both hands as we listened to the radio. (The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver)

What's more, the OED actually gives an entry for a related sense of unpack to mean "not taken out of a pack or parcel," giving a cite from 1721:

Loads of ill Pictures, and worse Books.., lye unpacked and unthought of when they come into the Country.

As Ben puts it, not unreasonably, "How many examples would you need to see before considering this to be a legitimate usage?"

Well, "legitimate" comes with a lot of ideological lint clinging to it, but my sense is still that this is an error, if a common and inviting one. After all, it's hard to see how un- could be plausibly reanalyzed as a mere intensifier; more likely this is an idiosyncratic sort of haplology, where the form unpacked stands in for ununpacked. The decisive question, I suggested to Jesse and Ben, would be whether the writers of these passages would defend the usage if the apparently anomalous use of unpacked were pointed out to them. To which Jesse responded:

I did try to contact the authors of the quotes I provided. The only one I managed to reach was John Derbyshire, who wrote the line I quoted from National Review, so he's conservative, and spoke with a very plummy RP British accent. When I first asked him he didn't see a problem, but when I pointed out unpacked he paused for a very long time, then said, "It's a mistake," and, in a manner typical of linguistic conservatives, he said, "I wouldn't have noticed it, but it's wrong, I won't do it again, I've learned something, it's my editor's fault," etc.

I've asked several more people with my constructed sentence, who continued the trend of not having a problem with it. One was a fact-checker at The New Yorker, who thought it was fine, still thought it was fine when I asked about unpacked, and only when I said, "the issue is that unpacked is here being used to mean 'packed'" did he say, "Oh, yes, that doesn't make any sense at all."

The one exception was an editor I know at Slate, who immediately said "unpackedisn't used right."

This seems to support my contention that few if any people are actually willing to stand up and defend their use of unpacked to mean ununpacked once the apparent illogicality of the construction is made clear. Note that by "apparent illogicality," I don't mean according to the pseudo-logic that prescriptivists invoke to justify their condemnations of double negation and the like; this one is clearly inconsistent with the morphological rules of the speakers' own grammars, unless they're willing to countenance it as an idiosyncratic exception.

But is that conclusive? Jesse and Ben would say, as I understand it, that once a form is widely used with a particular meaning, it merits a lexical entry, whether or not its users are willing to go to the mattresses on its behalf. I would argue that these are more on the order of performance errors, or of overnegations like Mark's example of don't fail to miss this one. Have Ben and Jesse fallen prey to loosey-goosey permissivism? Or am I in a state of stiff-necked lexicographical denial?

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at May 17, 2005 08:11 PM