- Not packed: The unpacked clothing lay on the floor next to the suitcase.
- (Usage Problem) Not yet having had the contents removed; not yet unpacked.
Sometimes past participles beginning with un–
are used as adjectives with what would seem to be the opposite of their literal meaning. For example, unpacked
is sometimes used to mean “not yet unpacked,” as in “How chaotic the house still was, some boxes still unpacked from the January move”
(Sue Miller). While such usages might appear to result from a momentary lapse of attention, these lapses must happen to copy editors as well as to writers because phrases like the new, still-unfolded leaves
and the still unwrapped mummy
occur with some frequency in edited sources. Most of the Usage Panel either does not mind or does not notice this ostensible mistake. In our 2004 survey, two-thirds or more accepted three different examples of this un–
phenomenon, with 80 percent accepting A crate of pottery, still unpacked, had just been delivered to Pompeii from Gaul when the town was buried by the eruption of Vesuvius.
• What makes people accept or not notice the fault in this construction? First, there is a natural tendency to collapse or avoid adjacent instances of an identical word element. So we say two daddy longlegs
rather than two daddy longlegses.
This is why many adjectives ending in –ly
have identical adverbs or no adverb. Note that we do not say “leisurelily” or “heavenlily.” Consequently, we say unpacked
instead of un-unpacked.
A second factor is the tendency to confuse multiple negatives, as in Don't fail to miss this one!
and No head injury is too minor to ignore,
where at least one layer of negativity is overlooked.