Do few of the principals appear seriously undamaged?

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"The Guardian view on King Charles: still on probation", The Guardian 12/15/2022:

The latest allegations from Harry and Meghan are damaging for the Windsor family – and perhaps for the monarchy.


Saddest of all, surely, is the sight of so many unhappy people inside such a dysfunctional institution. Few of the principals appear undamaged, often seriously, by the pressures of the roles they play in front of an audience of sometimes infantilised millions.

Let's try de-litotes-izing that last sentence:

Most of the principals appear damaged, often seriously, by the pressures of the roles they play in front of an audience of sometimes infantilised millions.

Does the original version mean the same thing? We highlight, you decide.



  1. Wally said,

    December 16, 2022 @ 3:00 pm

    I went to Wikipedia to see what litotes meant and it said it was common in a few languages that it listed and then said it is also used in a number of other languages. Is there any reason to believe that it is not common in most languages?

  2. Kingfisher said,

    December 16, 2022 @ 3:09 pm

    On the one hand, the inclusion of "often seriously" must make the original sentence incorrect, since you can't intensify a state of undamaged-ness, only qualify it ("mostly, essentially" etc.).

    On the other hand, I think a sentence built around "undamaged" fits better in this case. "Undamaged" implies being in a situation in which damage might have been expected, and people like the royal family are further expected to be in such situations without having been affected by it.

  3. Craig said,

    December 16, 2022 @ 3:30 pm

    I think your version means pretty much the same thing as the original, but I'm not happy with either. I like the way the original sentence begins ("Few of the principals appear undamaged"), but following that with "often seriously" seems weird, because the sentences started out being about the few who appear undamaged, but then "often seriously" redirects us to the others who do appear damaged. It's just a poorly-constructed sentence. I think I would prefer something like, "Few of the principals appear undamaged by the roles that they play, and the damage is serious in many cases."

  4. David L said,

    December 16, 2022 @ 3:54 pm

    It seems to me like a sentence that someone decided to edit, but went for a cup of tea before finishing. And then it got published.

  5. Rick Rubenstein said,

    December 16, 2022 @ 5:19 pm

    That's a cute one. I think the original succeeds in modifying damaged inside its negation: "un-(often-seriously-)damaged". That would make the two versions functionally the same, but tonally different; "damaged" and "undamaged" aren't quite perfectly antonymic. Oh, and also I don't consider "most" to be the opposite of "few", so I think Version 2 would be closer using "nearly all" instead.

  6. Jerry Packard said,

    December 16, 2022 @ 6:38 pm

    I think the sentence is fine. I would wager that all readers understand exactly what it means, and few would notice the contradiction.

  7. DaveK said,

    December 16, 2022 @ 10:35 pm

    Let’s see… “Few of the principals appear not to have been damaged, often seriously, by the pressure of the roles they play”
    A bit wordy, but preserves the litotes.

  8. JPL said,

    December 17, 2022 @ 12:54 am

    "Apparently, few of the principles have remained undamaged by the often debilitating pressures of the roles they play."

    I would offer this sentence as a more accurate expression of what the author probably intended to express. (In other words, he probably did not intend to express the idea that, "few of the principles (often) appear seriously undamaged".) An adverbial expression in that position (in the article's sentence) would normally be interpreted as describing a nuance of the event described by the verb, but here it's not the right event, which would be the damaging, not the undamaged result of the absence of the event. I think the "litotes" point of view is probably primary and a valued part of the author's expressive intent, and any accurate paraphrase should maintain its equivalence. So writers: mind your negations! So, again, what is expressed by a given sentence (as judged by the norms of the language) can be different from what would be accepted by the writer as a reader's nevertheless correct interpretation of what s/he intended to express. And what is interesting is to wonder how what the writer intended to express was possible, where did it come from?

  9. Chris Barts said,

    December 17, 2022 @ 6:18 am

    Who's damaging school officials? That's the real question here.

  10. Taylor, Philip said,

    December 17, 2022 @ 6:43 am

    Probably the same people that believe that thespians take an active rôle in Libyan politics, Chris …

  11. postmortes said,

    December 17, 2022 @ 7:33 am

    Isn't it simplest to change the modifier though? "Few of the principals appear undamaged, even minorly, by the pressures of the roles they play…" seems to preserve much of the original (and the litotes, for what that's worth).

  12. Rodger C said,

    December 17, 2022 @ 10:52 am

    Isn't damage a prerequisite for being a school official?

  13. Rob said,

    December 20, 2022 @ 9:00 am

    I just love "an audience of sometimes infantilised millions". I'll remember that…

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