"Far beyond unconventional levels of dishonesty"

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For the Washington Post opinion blog The Plum Line, Greg Sargent wrote: "The events of this week are revealing with a new level of clarity that President Trump and the White House have ventured far beyond unconventional levels of dishonesty."

Obligatory screenshot:

On Twitter, Jonathan Zittrain wondered if Sargent actually meant "far beyond conventional levels of dishonesty."

Dan Scherlis responded that this could be a "classic valence error," or it could be construed as a kind of hyperbolic emphasis, since "unconventional" is already beyond "conventional." He figured it was likely an error and pointed to what he saw as a similar case: my Language Log treatment of Meghan McCain's tweet last year after a Republican primary debate: "Every negative stereotype I have tried to combat for the last 8 years about republicans has been utterly destroyed in the past 9 months."

In the Meghan McCain tweet, there is a clear conflict between "every negative stereotype I have tried to combat" and "utterly destroyed," since the debate seemed to reinforce rather than destroy the stereotypes that McCain sought to combat. The emphatic characterization "utterly destroyed" is perhaps meant to apply to the work McCain was doing to combat stereotypes rather than the stereotypes themselves.

In Greg Sargent's sentence, there is a somewhat similar telescoping of two concepts. One might typically say that Trump and the White House have "ventured far beyond conventional levels of dishonesty," with the idea being that "conventional levels of dishonesty" are levels that have been transgressed, moving the dishonesty into unconventional territory. But "beyond unconventional" can also be understood as a kind of hyperbole: the dishonesty isn't just unconventional, it's beyond unconventional. Trump has frequently elicited such hyperbolic reactions.

While "beyond unconventional" has this idiomatic sense of "extremely unconventional," it does sound odd in the context Sargent gives it. "Ventur[ing] far beyond unconventional levels of dishonesty" seems to set up a boundary line between "conventional" and "unconventional," and then a further boundary line between "unconventional" and… what, exactly?

Update: Greg Sargent responds on Twitter.


  1. David L said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 1:54 pm

    Trump's dishonesty is so far outside the norm that all the political commentators can't even.

  2. Paul R said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 2:05 pm

    Speaking of even, would adding one make it clearer, i.e. "far beyond even unconventional levels of dishonesty"?

  3. keri said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 2:16 pm

    oh, this is an interesting little puzzle. i had to give it a think to see what "beyond unconventional" means to me, and it certainly has some political opinion depths to it.

    i think it's a bit how "unconventional" can be a positive modifier. "her unconventional methods brought greater satisfaction and revenue" – they aren't normal methods, but not unacceptable. to add "beyond", it feels like it's describing something not just not normal, but also unacceptable.

  4. Gregory Kusnick said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 3:11 pm

    Farther down the page, we find this:


    Is the GOP rejecting last-ditch changes, or proposing them? The latter, apparently (though it's hard to tell for sure).

  5. Jonfrum said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 3:23 pm

    "I'm saying far beyond merely the unconv levels of dishonesty many have pointed out…"

    In other words, when in doubt, brazen it out. It's not an error if I know what I meant. Then again, linguistics seems to be quite proud of its own relativism. In a world in which all dialects are created equal, and every 'like' and 'um' has its own legitimate semantic content, it's hard to criticize a guy who's just telling you perfectly clearly that he hates Trump.

  6. Michael Stoler said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 3:33 pm

    It makes me think how "extra" and "ultra" — which originally meant "outside of" and "beyond" — have come to mean "very" ("hyper" and "super", too, for that matter) so that "extraordinary" sounds as if it means "very ordinary" but really it means "out of the ordinary". But "ultraconservative" means "very conservative"….

  7. Martin B said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 5:21 pm

    "Ventur[ing] far beyond unconventional levels of dishonesty" seems to set up a boundary line between "conventional" and "unconventional," and then a further boundary line between "unconventional" and… what, exactly?

    Unprecedented. One could surely construe 'unconventional' as meaning highly unusual, but previously encountered.

    I'm also with Paul R above. Adding "even" would neatly disambiguate this, if that were the intended meaning.

    But as the post says it's probably a mistake.

  8. Elonkareon said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 6:12 pm

    I think the text of the article supports Greg Sargent's claim that it was intentional:

    >a kind of deep rot of bad faith — a profound contempt for democratic process and the possibility of agreement on shared reality — that is wildly beyond anything in recent memory and strains the limits of our political vocabulary.

  9. JPL said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 7:09 pm

    "The events of this week are revealing with a new level of clarity that President Trump and the White House have ventured far beyond even unconventional levels of dishonesty and into the area of the psychotic."

    Agreeing with Paul R and responding to Ben's Q, "what exactly?" comes after the unconventional levels, but I would say that Trump has been out there in the psychotic for quite a while; it's the understanding of the journalists of the kind of mind they're dealing with that has had to venture far. The man shows evidence of serious pathologies of cognition, in addition to primitive levels of ethical and emotional understanding. Specifically, his ability for linguistic expression is extremely limited, as well as his ability to understand complex syntactic structures in the speech of others. I wonder in fact, it seems to me that he actually believes that what he says is what is true. Is it possible to have a normal serious conversation with this man? There are serious problems here that are far beyond the normal, conventional or even the unconventional use of language by those the political journalists have had to deal with.

  10. Filter Fodder said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 11:20 pm

    I'm curious, is it OK to be honest if it's according to convention? What are those conventions?

  11. Filter Fodder said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 11:21 pm

    *dishonest, of course.

  12. John Swindle said,

    March 22, 2017 @ 12:01 am

    It's not just the *!&$% dishonesty. It's beyond that. It's a deep rot of bad faith.

  13. Faldone said,

    March 22, 2017 @ 8:05 am

    This sounds similar to the characterization of something being "not even wrong."

  14. Jonfrum said,

    March 22, 2017 @ 10:59 am

    "I think the text of the article supports Greg Sargent's claim that it was intentional:"

    No doubt it was intentional. In the same way that 'nucular' is intentional. He knows what he means, and we know – reasonably well – what he means.

  15. Adrian said,

    March 22, 2017 @ 12:44 pm

    His response makes no sense. I guess he's beyond unconventionally intelligent.

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 22, 2017 @ 2:59 pm

    A different phrasing like "These levels of dishonesty are beyond unconventional" would sound significantly less weird to me, and make the intended parse of "extremely unconventional" more straightforward. I don't know if this fits some more general pattern of adjectival phrases that sound weird if used attributively in an NP but less weird when used as a predicate?

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 22, 2017 @ 3:01 pm

    But e.g. "That idea is beyond crazy" sounds much less weird to me than "This might sound like a beyond crazy idea," so at least as to this use of "beyond" as intensifier I think it generalizes.

  18. maidhc said,

    March 22, 2017 @ 3:46 pm

    For politicians there are levels of dishonesty that would probably be considered conventional–quoting someone out of context, for example.

  19. JPL said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 2:13 am

    Take a look at this interview with Trump to see his speech performance in action and an illustration of what I was talking about above. (This is not an isolated case, but is typical.) Does this look like a normal serious conversation about the issue of credibility and trust as important qualities for a President? This is what he is capable of expressing, and this is what he is capable of thinking. What does this indicate about his grasp of the relation between expressed meaning and objective reality? It's not just the paucity of vocabulary and grammatical constructions, but the disorder of the thoughts. This is not normal, it's not conventional, it's not merely unconventional, it's pathological and it's appalling.


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