What does the double negative in the below sentence mean?

The attack was not unforeseen.

  • 4
    It means simply that the attack was foreseen. Jan 3, 2022 at 21:48
  • 3
    What is the particular difficulty. Would you understand "It was not unsuccessful" or "He is not unhappy". Or are you asking why the author didn't write "The attack was foreseen"?
    – James K
    Jan 3, 2022 at 21:54

2 Answers 2


As others have mentioned in the comments, being "not unforeseen" implies that the attack was "foreseen". The effect is similar to that of two negative numbers multiplying to give a positive number; the negatives basically cancel each other.

Note that some negations are not meant entirely literally; for example, If I say that a student was "not unhappy" with a test result, "unhappy" doesn't actually mean "not happy" but rather means something like "displeased". Using double negatives for a rhetorical purpose like this is often called litotes.

  • 1
    I think there is more than the multiplication of negative. "Not unhappy" is different from "happy".
    – James K
    Jan 4, 2022 at 7:15
  • The attack was not entirely unexpected. Jan 4, 2022 at 9:19
  • 1
    @JamesK Yes, there is more, which I didn't really want to get into because it seemed to stray from OP's question. Technically "not unhappy" would imply "happy", but of course we use this phrase for rhetorical effect. (That's what my link to "litotes" was trying to suggest; perhaps I didn't do it so well.) Jan 4, 2022 at 20:54
  • @KateBunting I'd argue that "not unexpected" does mean "expected" (with some extra connotation from the rhetorical effect), but when you add "entirely" it's not really a complete negation anymore. Jan 4, 2022 at 20:56
  • After thinking about it some more, I've updated my answer. Jan 5, 2022 at 0:32

An author might use a double negative for rhetorical effect

You might construct a semantic map like this:

  Surprising, unpredicted |  grey area   | expected, forecast
     Unforeseen           |              |  Foreseen
                          | <---  Not unforeseen ----->       

An author might use "not unforeseen" to weaken the sense of foreseen; the author wants to include some of the "grey area" between "expected" and "surprising". The double negative allows the author to "understate" a fact.

But an author can also use this understatement ironically to give this map

  Surprising, unpredicted |  grey area   | expected, forecast
     Unforeseen           |              |  Foreseen
                                                    | <---Not unforeseen ----->     

Ironically "not unforeseen" can mean "completely predictable". This figure of speech is called litotes

How can you tell the difference between the literal, weak meaning, and the ironic strong meaning.... It's hard, you have to understand the whole of what a person is saying, the tone of voice, the opinion that you understand the speaker to have of the topic. It isn't something that is indicated in the grammar or punctuation.

Without context, I'd assume the non-ironic meaning a weakened form of "The attack was foreseen"

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