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When reading a passage, I found that I didn’t understand the word “altogether” well, so looked it up in the OALD and the Genius English-Japanese Dictionary.

One example in the OALD was “I’m not altogether happy (= I’m very unhappy) about the decision”. This confused me because I’ve heard that “not always/necessarily/completely/everything etc.” doesn’t mean “never/not at all”.

On the other hand, one example in the Genius was “That is not altogether bad (=That is fairly good)”. This is usual to me, so I searched for questions about this and found similar one in this site. In a comment, “not altogether happy” was one example that doesn’t imply partially because the speaker is deliberately understating.

So I think “not altogether happy” is a fixed expression in a sense.

I’d like to know other examples in which “not altogether” means “not at all”.

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  • It's called understatement (litotes if you want to be "literary"). So I'm not a complete idiot would usually mean I'm not an idiot at all, rather than I'm only a bit of an idiot. Feb 19, 2021 at 16:29
  • ...and of course don't forget the famous British penchant for "understatement", whereby This is an interesting question is used to mean This is a really stupid question. Feb 19, 2021 at 16:35
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    Thank you for answering! Learning English makes me strongly feel that English is a language to speak in everyday life, not a subject to study at school. I hope my question doesn’t look interesting :(
    – Sota
    Feb 20, 2021 at 0:40

1 Answer 1

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The correct translation for "I'm not altogether happy." is
"I'm not completely happy." The translation you found, "I'm very unhappy" is simply incorrect.

So, you are right. "Not altogether" does not mean "Not at all".

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  • Oh, really!? Thank you for answering! oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/altogether_1 This is the dictionary I found the translation. I haven’t imagined that such a great dictionary can make mistakes... Thank you so much!
    – Sota
    Feb 19, 2021 at 7:08
  • Not exactly a mistake. The literal meaning of not altogether happy is indeed not completely happy, as in their other example not altogether convinced. What they are trying to suggest is that a person might say they are 'not altogether happy' about something as a tactful way of implying that they are not at all happy - as you say, a 'deliberate understatement'. Feb 19, 2021 at 10:04
  • Thank you for answering! So in this case, the literal meaning is different from the genuine meaning. Also in Japanese, 「あー、この意見には”ちょっと”同意できない」means “Ah ... I have “a few” concerns about your opinion, so I cannot agree with you.” in a literal sense, and the speaker fairly often think, on the other hand, that the opinion is just unacceptable. But they say in that way in order not to hurt or annoy the person they are talking with. And of course, English has similar cases, right? I’ve learned what I couldn’t learn at school, thank you so much!
    – Sota
    Feb 19, 2021 at 13:56
  • If a learners' dictionary offers a translation implying understatement or sarcasm in place of a literal one, they should point that out, so as not to confuse learners. Feb 19, 2021 at 16:42

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