"Lack of unpreparedness"

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From John Lawler:

My (non-linguist) partner heard someone say "I'm surprised at the lack of unpreparedness" on the radio this morning, and when we googled it to find out who was misnegating, we found the phrase everywhere, and not just recently, either.

John suggests a Google search . . .

There are published examples in Google Books, e.g.

[source] An almost total lack of unpreparedness and the expansion of our Army to thirty times its size before the war caused a tremendous disturbance in the business life of the country, as well as in its social life.

[source] Bemoaning what they saw as the total “lack of unpreparedness” in Iraq for self-administration and fearing the creation of a government in Iraq led by Arabic-speaking Sunnis, the petitioners requested that they be “taken under the shield of the British Government …"

[source] The "undisputed facts on Morro's lack of unpreparedness" included a dispute as to whether Morro had a legitimate excuse for not being able to identify a particular culprit where two arrests had been made separately but contemporaneously …

And a check of news sources turns up examples there as well, e.g.

[source] Group members had tough questions about testing. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor addressed her concerns afterwards.

“Our testing is woefully inadequate. I’ve been in law enforcement for 31 years and I’ve never seen this lack of unpreparedness on the federal level so my recommendation to everyone is to conduct yourself as if you have this virus.

[source] Then there’s Ecovec, a Brazilian startup which uses GPS-enabled traps to monitor vectors, predict epidemic outbreaks, and inform the government. Their inspiration was Brazil’s lack of unpreparedness to deal with a health crisis like the Zika virus. These companies have secured a hold over their markets based on an understanding of local issues combined with execution driven by deep tech.

[source] On Friday, the city of Gurugram woke up to water-logged streets and roads. Clearly, the change in name from Gurgaon hasn't changed the woeful lack of unpreparedness in the city and its surroundings.


  1. M. Paul Shore said,

    April 2, 2020 @ 1:23 pm

    I wonder whether this could be considered perhaps not quite a form of, but at least psycholinguistically akin to, the phenomenon of negative concord/emphatic negation.

    I'm also reminded of the ne explétif/ne pléonastique in such French sentences as "L'Italie était moins préparée pour le virus que la Corée du Sud ne l'était".

  2. M. Paul Shore said,

    April 2, 2020 @ 5:52 pm

    Or, perhaps even more appositely, "L'Italie était plus impréparée pour le virus que la Corée du Sud ne l'était".

  3. KevinM said,

    April 2, 2020 @ 7:14 pm

    I think your negative concord/emphatic negation explanation is right. Somewhere in the back of the writer's mind, unpreparedness sounded bad, but lack of unpreparedness sounded even worse.

  4. DigitalDan said,

    April 2, 2020 @ 7:29 pm

    I couldn't fail to disagree with you less.

  5. Andrew Usher said,

    April 2, 2020 @ 10:29 pm

    The phrase 'lack of unpreparedness' can't be correct in any context, so the rest of the sentences hardly need be analysed (given that the meaning is obvious).

    I'll point out that this may be a mix of the phrase 'lack of preparation' (which must be common) with the more awkward 'unpreparedness'.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  6. Michael Watts said,

    April 3, 2020 @ 12:59 am

    the more awkward 'unpreparedness'

    Awkward? It's idiomatic and common enough that I'm aware that it's part of the select club of words where the -ed suffix is realized as one syllable instead of zero. (Which is a trait notably not shared with "unprepared".)

  7. M. Paul Shore said,

    April 3, 2020 @ 1:27 am

    Andrew Usher: I'm not sure whether you merely mean that the phrase "lack of unpreparedness" can't be correct in those contexts where "lack of preparedness" is the obviously intended sense, or whether you mean that it can't be correct in any context whatsoever. If the latter, I'd beg to differ: I can imagine it being used in a pseudo-paradoxical sense (e.g., "The scientist's hidebound convictions–his lack of unpreparedness, as it were–rendered him incapable of seeing the revolutionary implications of his extraordinary experimental results"), or in an ironic sense (e.g., "Not only did the young farm boy not suffer from the unpreparedness his fellow math students believed him to suffer from, his lack of unpreparedness was in fact so great as to propel him to the top spot in their differential topology class").

    I'd also say that, to the extent there's a mixing of two locutions going on in the various quoted published examples, it's almost certainly between the phrase "lack of preparedness [not 'preparation']" and the word "unpreparedness", neither of which is appreciably more or less awkward than the other. And while people sometimes do confuse a word with its exact opposite, I think that the frequency with which the phrase "lack of unpreparedness" crops up in what appear to otherwise be reasonably carefully done writings suggests that some other process, something requiring a deeper explanation, may be going on.

  8. M. Paul Shore said,

    April 3, 2020 @ 2:06 am

    I wonder–and I admit I'm getting increasingly speculative here–whether these illogical instances of "lack of unpreparedness" could stem in part from a vague subconscious confusion between the normal meaning of "of" in "lack of" on the one hand, and on the other hand the meaning of "of" that identifies the noun following it as a specific instance of the noun preceding it. With the latter meaning, we have phrases like "the city of Springfield" (= "the specific city that is Springfield"), "the sense of smell" (= "the specific sense that is smell"), and "the property of solubility" (= "the specific property that is solubility"). I wonder whether, with that latter meaning rattling around in their heads, some writers and speakers might on occasion be lulled into uttering the phrase "lack of unpreparedness" because it conveys a vague impression of possibly meaning "the specific lack that is unpreparedness".

  9. Graeme said,

    April 3, 2020 @ 4:20 am

    Excess of unpreparedness.

  10. Andrew Usher said,

    April 3, 2020 @ 6:39 am

    Michael Watts:
    I am again surprised. I do not find it idiomatic at all; I don't think I would ever use (un)preparedness, and if I had to read them I surely would not have pronounced the '-ed'. They sound like jargon to me (business, military, or other management) as against the ordinary word 'preparation'. Is there some belief that 'preparation' can or should not be used to mean 'preparedness'? – that would certainly be groundless.

    And naturally its opposite is 'lack of preparation', which for the same reason I would expect over 'lack of preparedness' although in this case (blending) it doesn't really matter. Of course, even more common is simply '(not) being prepared', which I don't consider excluded from formal English.

    'Disaster preparedness' = jargon
    'Disaster preparation' = potentially ambiguous but usable in context
    'Being prepared for (a) disaster' = normal English

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    April 3, 2020 @ 6:51 am

    Andrew — for me, "preparedness" is a state; "preparation" is an action.

  12. George said,

    April 3, 2020 @ 7:11 am

    I'm with Philip Taylor. 'Preparation' is about getting everything in place. 'Preparedness' is about having everything in place.

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 3, 2020 @ 1:03 pm

    Michael Watts on "unpreparedness": It's idiomatic and common enough that I'm aware that it's part of the select club of words where the -ed suffix is realized as one syllable instead of zero.

    Thanks. Pronouncing the -ed as a syllable wouldn't occur to me (though I've heard it), but I see to my surprise that it's the first pronunciation of "preparedness" in Merriam-Webster and the only one in American Heritage and Lexico.

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    April 3, 2020 @ 1:51 pm

    An couple from the LPD which I was not expecting : /ˌwel ˈfɔːm ɪd nəs/, /ˌtuː ˈfeɪs ɪd nəs/, … Many others, but those which stood out were those in which the "ed" is non-syllabic in the form lacking "ness".

  15. Michael Watts said,

    April 3, 2020 @ 4:09 pm

    Excess of unpreparedness.

    That's one way to contrast with "lack", but it doesn't make a lot of sense. I'd expect something more like "abject unpreparedness" or "total unpreparedness".

  16. Andrew Usher said,

    April 3, 2020 @ 10:09 pm

    It's actually surprising to me that these forms with '-edness' have (or usually have) syllabic '-ed'. I know about 'supposedly', of course, but assumed that it was a holdover from the time when '-ed' was always syllabic in slow speech. 'Preparedness' is certainly a much more recent coinage, and also the others, and the non-syllabic form is not hard to say.

    While I appreciate the distinction between the state and the action, 'preparation' has both meanings and must have almost as long as it's been English. As I said if the ambiguity was serious I'd naturally use a different phrasing – 'prepardedness' would simply not occur to me, although I must have heard it more than once.

  17. Michael Watts said,

    April 4, 2020 @ 12:22 am

    I know about 'supposedly', of course, but assumed that it was a holdover from the time when '-ed' was always syllabic in slow speech.

    I see no reason to assume that, since "supposed" in the relevant sense, like "beloved", "learned", and "aged", already has -ed as a full syllable. You could assume that that is a holdover from long ago, but "supposedly" is just a straightforward addition of -ly to "supposed".

  18. Andrew Usher said,

    April 4, 2020 @ 9:12 am

    I am not certain that 'supposed' in that sense is supposed to be pronounced with the '-ed', but if so it doesn't weaken my case. In other words if '-ly' never changes the syllabicity, then '-ness' shouldn't even more.

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 4, 2020 @ 10:00 am

    Andrew Usher: :'Preparedness' is certainly a much more recent coinage, and also the others, and the non-syllabic form is not hard to say.

    I agree. It has no hardness or even weirdness.

    The OED has "preparedness" back to 1590.

    I've always assumed that the extra syllables in some people's pronunciations (not mine) of adjectival "supposed", "marked", and "alleged" are back-formations from "supposedly", "markedly", and "allegedly", but I don't have any evidence. The OED says, "N.E.D. (1884) gives only the pronunciation (ăle·dʒd) /əˈlɛdʒd/, as do most British dictionaries. Pronunciation with three syllables (perhaps influenced by allegedly) is given as an alternative in Webster's Third Internat. Dict. Eng. Lang. (1961) and subsequent U.S. dictionaries."

  20. Andrew Usher said,

    April 5, 2020 @ 12:09 am

    I think you're right. Note for example that the extra syllable could be heard in 'a marked tendency' (= the tendency is markedly …) but not 'a marked letter' (!= the letter is markedly …).

    'Preparedness' may be attested to 1590, but its current popularity is suggested by the Google curves to have begun only with the First World War.

  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 6, 2020 @ 12:01 pm

    Thanks for the example with "markèd". I couldn't think of anything like that for adjectival "supposed" and "alleged".

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