Language Log has been investigating a very interesting situation. It seems people very often say and write “unpacked” when logically they should be using “packed”; the example Geoff Nunberg brought up in the first post is from the New Yorker: “They had only just moved in; their boxes lay on the kitchen floor, still unpacked.” As Geoff says, “it can be hard to spot, even when you’ve been tipped off in advance to look for it.” (Dan Menaker noticed it after three other editors at the magazine had missed it.) Mark Liberman then discovered that it was an extremely common error, and Jesse Sheidlower of the OED pointed out (in Geoff’s latest post) that it may not be an error at all; in his words, “unpacked doesn’t mean what you think it means.” Geoff suggested that the “decisive question… would be whether the writers of these passages would defend the usage if the apparently anomalous use of unpacked were pointed out to them.” To which Jesse responded:

I did try to contact the authors of the quotes I provided. The only one I managed to reach was John Derbyshire, who wrote the line I quoted from National Review, so he’s conservative, and spoke with a very plummy RP British accent. When I first asked him he didn’t see a problem, but when I pointed out unpacked he paused for a very long time, then said, “It’s a mistake,” and, in a manner typical of linguistic conservatives, he said, “I wouldn’t have noticed it, but it’s wrong, I won’t do it again, I’ve learned something, it’s my editor’s fault,” etc.

I’ve asked several more people with my constructed sentence, who continued the trend of not having a problem with it. One was a fact-checker at The New Yorker, who thought it was fine, still thought it was fine when I asked about unpacked, and only when I said, “the issue is that unpacked is here being used to mean ‘packed'” did he say, “Oh, yes, that doesn’t make any sense at all.”

Geoff’s response is that this shows the usage is a performance error; he doesn’t want to call it a part of English unless its users acknowledge it as such. I disagree; to me, it’s reminiscent of the alleged “which/that” distinction, of which Arnold Zwicky says “authors who recommend it routinely violate it and… the facts of usage are squarely against it.” People who think language should be a certain way even though it’s not, even in their own usage, are perfectly willing to condemn their own usage and say “it’s wrong, I won’t do it again…” You can’t depend on users’ judgments in these matters, you have to look at the facts of usage, and based on what I’ve seen at the Log, one meaning of unpacked is ‘(still) packed.’ The fact that it contradicts the older meaning is irrelevant; context will disambiguate, just as it does with other self-contradictory words like sanction.

But I’d like to know what others think, and since there’s no comment function at the Log, feel free to express yourself below.

Addendum. On the which/that distinction, see Arnold Zwicky’s long and interesting followup.

Update. Jan Freeman writes about the controversy and links to a page where you can vote on a sample sentence; Geoff Pullum admits “that we have a lexical phenomenon here, not a sporadic error heard occasionally here and there.” Progress!


  1. Tatyana says:

    I don’t see the problem with the word itself. The object it is paired with is what’s wrong. (yes, wrong, because the usage mudles the meaning)
    “Pack” is a tautology of “box”, in this case. If you exchange “box” with “stuff”, or “belongigngs” &c , isn’t the message becomes perfectly clear? “They had only just moved in; their “stuff lay on the kitchen floor, still unpacked.”

  2. When I first saw this I thought, “I would never say that.” Now, I am not so sure. Have I heard and said it a hundred times, and never noticed? It seems to be a reduction of un-unpacked, which I certainly wouldn’t say. I would describe those boxes in my attic as “those boxes that are still packed up,” or “those boxes we never unpacked.” Wouldn’t I?

  3. A long time ago I realized that watering the lawn puts water in, and weeding the lawn takes weeds out. This is the first amphibious version I’ve seen. “Unpacked” could mean “still needs to have the packing-unpacking process finished up.”

  4. You get the same sort of thing occurring with still unearthed [from Google]:

    Especially, we feel for the families and friends of the innocent victims who until today continue grieving and searching for still unearthed remains of their loved ones.
    … you will experience intimate contact with the jungle, its impressive wildlife and the remains of the fortified Mayan citadel, for the most part still unearthed.
    Behind the church was another dirt hut where another mass grave remained, still unearthed,…
    Even though there were tantalizing hints of the still unearthed Higgs particle detected just before LEP was to turn off,

    Also, several of the examples given at the bottom of Mark Lieberman’s post suggest that something like “We need to unpack the unpacked boxes,” may not strike people as odd (and indeed, “unpack the unpacked” turns up five Google results, all dealing with packed archives).

  5. Hmmm. Never thought of it. At first I thought maybe I do use the word “unpacked” both ways, but I think actually I only use it to mean “empty”, i.e., my suitcase is finally unpacked – I’ve taken all the stuff out. But maybe the error is so common it’s become like “raveled” and “unraveled”. What about the colloquial, fairly recent use of “unpack” to mean “explain the meaning [of something obscure or complicated] after the fact”? That clearly implies an “emptying” or a “going through” of a bunch of stuff that was “packed up.”

  6. Neil Schnepf says:

    …”Unpacked” could mean “still needs to have the packing-unpacking process finished up.”…
    This is the meaning that I associate with it. And I have a feeling it’s the common one.
    This might be an attempt to contract
    “The boxes remained on the floor, having as yet to be unpacked.”

  7. It’s delightful.
    Like looking at something familiar and seeing a suddenly new feature of it, something that had been lurking there the whole while.
    I’m sure someone could write a witty little poem about it.

  8. It may just be an unconscious condensation of “un-unpacked”, which sound funny as hell.

  9. still unloaded, brings back results where ships are waiting to be unloaded.
    still unrolled turns up in a patent application for a condom applicator, referring to the rolled-up condom.
    I wonder if unfurled would be similar, or if its usage is too ritualized.

  10. Unearthed = the earth has not yet been removed from it
    Unpacked = the packed-ness/packing has not yet been removed from it
    This makes some sense.
    I am going on a trip tomorrow, and I haven’t packed yet. I am hesitant now to say that my bags are still unpacked.

  11. Perhaps the word is being used as a synonym for “unopened” or “unemptied.” But why?
    Is it because we associate “un” with a centrifugal or loosening action? So that when we hear “still un-X”, we think something is awaiting its loosening or, better still, as someone else has pointed out, its proper finish.
    That is perhaps why the other places this error might occur (unearthed, unfurled, unstopped) are all…
    Oh, wait a second. I just had a different thought. But I need to think it through.
    Maybe the confusion comes because often, the “un” prefix is attached to words that precede the, er, unprefixed form.
    unprefix–> prefix
    unfinished–> finished
    But in these peculiar cases, the form without the prefix is actually required before the prefixed form. You must furl something before unfurling it. You cannot unearth that which hasn’t yet been earthed.
    So, the mind reasoning that the final destination of something is its unprefixed form, complains that something is “still unpacked” when it means to say it is “still un(unpacked).”
    Have you unpacked your bag?
    No, I haven’t unpacked my bag?
    Your bag is still packed?
    Your bag is still unpacked?
    OH, contarn it, I’ve gone and confused myself.

  12. Oh, I get it!!
    The problem is the word “pack” which we’ve been mistakenly thinking of simply as putting the stuff in.
    “Pack” can also mean taking the stuff out. It’s a word that its own antonym.
    When I say my bag is (still) unpacked, I mean that my bag is full of stuff and hasn’t received the packing action (in this case, taking stuff out) yet. When it does (probably about a week after I get home), I say that my bag is (finally) unpacked. But now I used the word in the opposite sense.
    OK, I’m off to look up “flammable” and “inflammable”, just to restore some order to my world.

  13. Aha! I knew W.V. Quine would deliver me from my nonsense. He writes:
    “Corresponding to our Latinate negative in- there is also our negative un- of Anglo-Saxon origin. It likewise is restricted to adjectives, with a few exceptions: unemployment, unreason, unrest. Nouns like unkindness are not exceptions; unkindness is an adjective unkind plus -ness.
    Verbs here are yet another matter. Un-, like in-, has two meanings. In its second meaning un- is different in origin from the simple negative un- and in-, and cognate rather with its German equivalent ent-. This un- does attach to a verb, and it expresses an undoing of what the verb expresses. Usually it carries an air of liberation, as in unbend, unbuckle, unburden, unbutton, undress, unfasten, unfold, unhinge, unlace, unload, unlock, untie, unzip. Thus it is that unloosen in the vernacular has the sense not of ‘tighten’ but of ‘loosen’. Similarly for unravel.”
    Amen, and hallelujah.

  14. Robert Staubs says:

    I’ve actually noticed this a lot with myself lately with “unwrapped”. I say something’s “unwrapped” or “still unwrapped” to mean “still wrapped”. It’s good to know it’s a more general phenomenon, I suppose.

  15. “still un(unpacked).”
    Exactly my thought, Abdul. They want to say it is still un-unpacked.
    Reminds me (vaguely) of when I told a friend how another friend recommended always joining the longest queue in the post office as a way of getting served quicker.
    “That’s counter-counterintuitive” my friend reacted immediately. I felt like I knew what he meant. It was only later in private it slowly dawned on me as I mulled it over that, no, it was just simple old counterintuitive.

  16. On this matter, I could care less, or couldn’t I?

  17. ‘Pends on how deep your apathy runs, dunnit?

  18. Martin M. says:

    Isn’t this the same sort of thing as nauseous, which language purists insist doesn’t mean nauseated, but which actual human beings* can read no other way?
    I’m also reminded of non-plussed, though I’m not sure how relevant it is. I’ve never known anyone who has not spent at least several years thinking that word meant the opposite of what it actually means. (In my own experience, I find people tend to want to attach that word to, say, James Bond, rather than, say, Arthur Dent.) But there the problem seems to be that no one knows what plussed is supposed to mean.
    * I don’t know how widespread this actually is, to be honest. But I can guarantee that if you tell any American, at the very least, that you feel “nauseous”, he or she will not look at you funny and say, “What the hell do you mean, nauseous? You make other people feel sick?”

  19. Folquerto says:

    Abdul-Walid got it perfectly right of course. The English prefix “un-” hides its twosomeness, it’s two different prefixes with quite different meanings. But how many of y’all English-speaking are linguists with a scholarly education in these basics of English?

  20. Folquerto says:

    It comes to my mind that “unmanly” and “to unman” show the prefix rather clearly in its twosomeness. But of course I am familiar with “unmännlich” and “entmannen”, so I never felt a problem with “still unpacked”. This is only one of the ways polyglossy pays off. That’s all there is to it.

  21. scarabaeus stercus says:

    “They had only just moved in; their boxes lay on the kitchen floor, still unpacked.”
    It be incomplete, but most of modern communication relies on the implied missing action; I.E. still ‘awaiting to be’ unpacked
    Everyday writing relies on regurgitating [or plagiarizing ] the ‘same old’ . So thee [the Reader ]fills in the blank spaces [of the writer] ] as time be money and key strokes add up to time wasted. The Correspondent will only put in to the written piece that extra clarifying content, when and only if he gets the monies, and the scribe is not held to fewer inches of column.

  22. It sounds like an error to me; that is, the required meaning is un-unpacked, which is unsayable, and the performance system lights on ‘unpacked’ conatining a morpheme ‘un-‘ = ‘not yet’ and thinks ‘good enough, I’ll use that.’
    It’s not simply a switch in meaning, because we can clearly use ‘unpacked’ in the ordinary sense in the same context: They could cook a meal because their pots and pans were already unpacked, but they couldn’t eat in the dining room because the furniture was still… um…

  23. “Unpacked” is right; “still” is wrong.

  24. Tatyana says:

    Exactly, aput: “pots and pans” – as well as the furniture, btw, could be unpacked. But the BOXES they had been packed into before – could not. The object used is wrong, that’s what i’m saying.
    You can say *boxes/crates/aquariums were (or were not) emptied*, but only contents of said containers could be packed or unpacked.

  25. Hm, no. That’s yet another ambiguity. I think you can unpack suitcases or tea-chests, _but_ that runs the risk of sounding funny, because there’s a possible vision of unpacking a suitcase being taking it out of something else. In normal contexts (i.e. not primed with all this discussion), unpacking the suitcase would be the normal way of saying it, but people could make a joke about it: “Why, what’s it packed in?” – Comparable to “Put the kettle on” – “Okay, but I don’t think it suits me.”

  26. Tatyana says:

    vision of unpacking a suitcase being taking it out of something else
    In context of unpacking a shipping container at the customs, may be. But normally that notion wouldn’t come to mind – unless you’re into Milligan-type word games.

  27. Some of you people speak strange English.
    In my idiolect, packing is to put stuff into
    containers or relatively tight enclosures (such as
    moving boxes, suitcases, or trunks), not to take
    it out.
    I suppose the stuff in boxes on the
    floor might be, in a special sense, as yet
    unpacked, if the stuff later will be packed
    away into drawers and closets or such. But even
    that’s *really pushing it.*

  28. popinque says:

    I am impressed by Abdul-Walid’s comments, but wonder if the problem is not simpler.
    “Unpack” can be either a transitive or intransitive verb: “Please unpack that suitcase.”
    Or “Have you unpacked?” Both verbs refer to the same action. It does not surprise me that the shift from passive transitive verb — the box has not yet been unpacked — to the transitive verb –we have not unpacked the box — occurs illogically in mid-sentence. All you have to do is shift your mental focus from the vision of youself unpacking the box to the box which is still full, without restarting the sentence.

  29. Folquerto says:

    I agree with Aput: un-unpacked, with the two historically different prefixed “un-‘s” the one after the other, is unsayable. I’ll take that “unsayable” in the sense of ugly, unpleasant, or disagreeable, and the phenomenon therefore as a common haplology.

  30. filsdefelix says:

    Hmm. Maybe it’s because I live on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean (more specifically, on the eastern side of the Pacific Ocean), but I don’t see why all the fuss. The boxes sit in the middle of the floor in my new apartment, and it is not the case that “they are unpacked”; rather, it is I that have not unpacked them. Whoever said that the boxes remain “packed” is correct; whoever said that the boxes “remain unpacked” is in need of a nap.

  31. Andrew Dunbar says:

    If “ununpacked” were a word in English, it would be using both senses of “un-“. This makes me wonder if there is a language which has different affixes for these and could make a literal translation of “ununpacked”

  32. I would guess co. In English we could have a word “depack” which would would solve the problem. If a second-language learner were to say “I’m depacking my stuff”, we would understand them.

  33. A Lurker says:

    I haven’t read all the comments, so I don’t know if someone has suggested this, but normally people say “I still haven’t unpacked”, which would be a correct use of the word. So maybe the incorrect usage stems from that.

  34. And of course if you’re in your old house, you might have to stand up because the furniture’s been packed away, but you can still have one last drink because the glasses are still… unpacked.
    But that’s distinctly unnatural. ‘Unpacked’ has a much closer (for me) affinity with ‘unpack’ (derivational) than with ‘packed’ (inflectional).

  35. For now, I am with Chris and fildefelix on this matter. I’ve got to get on with the chores, and will review the matter later.
    Why not submit this to the denizens at the forum in Colins Word Exchange to see what they have to say about it? I’d love to read what MALLamb, lexus, and company have to say on the matter.

  36. I have to vote for solecism. The author just left out a “not.” Rather than invoking the impossible “ununpacked,” the sentence could have read: “Their boxes lay on the kitchen floor, still not unpacked,” which to me sounds not unidiomatic.

  37. Glossling says:

    “Un” may be acting as a pejorative marker, like “dis”. “Dispacked” would be “packed badly”, “unpacked” is “packed-when-it-shouldn’t-be”. When you say “still packed”, the wrongness of the situation isn’t explicit in the language but has to be deduced from context and knowledge-of-the-world. Adding an “un” makes it explicit. The same thing might happen with loaded/unloaded etc, but not with smashed/unsmashed, because “smashed” is explicitly negative.
    it’s reminiscent of the alleged “which/that” distinction… It’s not alleged in my idiolect.

  38. Noetica says:

    it’s reminiscent of the alleged “which/that” distinction… It’s not alleged in my idiolect.”
    Is that a metalinguistic “not alleged”, Glossling?

  39. In college, I remember a similar situation with a sex-ed brochure that discussed the proper way to use a condom:
    “Place the unrolled condom against the tip of the penis…”
    Which is exactly wrong. The writer wanted to say:
    “Place the still-rolled condom against…”
    This is a case where what you really want to say is “un-unrolled,” but since you know that you can repeat “un,” you drop it.

  40. An excellent parallel!

  41. Noetica says:

    Very much to the point, John August.

  42. Whoever said the issue comes up because it’s a matter of process was onto something. What we have is a packing-meeting goal-unpacking triad.
    Meeting the goal could be moving, sending package, going on vacation, etc. The word ‘unpacked’ means different things depending on whether it happens before or after the goal is met. But it always can mean ‘disorganized.’ Before the goal, say a move, ‘unpacked’ means not yet packed, ie, disorganized (“Honey, do we have any more unpacked boxes?”). After the goal it means not unpacked, ie, disorganized again (“Short trips reminded Jason of college relationships; he left his suitcase unpacked in the hotel rooms.”).
    You could not use ‘unpacked’ to mean disorganized before the goal has been completed: “The movers called and said they couldn’t come till tomorrow. Helen and I spent the evening among a Stonehedge of unpacked boxes, monuments of our pack-ratness.” See – unpacked doesn’t make any sense here.

  43. Jeff Sigsworth says:

    John Emerson had the right idea (in 2005)… a box or suitcase could be “depacked” or still “un-depacked,” whereas its contents could be packed or still unpacked. But “un-depacked” would sound a little stupid, wouldn’t it? Oh, well…

  44. See now Edwin L. Battistella’s OUPBlog article on un-:

    The story of un- gets tricky though because sometimes past participles serve as verbs, which allows ambiguity: The box was unpacked. The baby was undressed. The jacket was unzipped. The gift was unwrapped.

    Each of these has an adjectival sense, in which the box was not packed, the baby was not dressed, the jacket was not zipped, the gift not wrapped. But each also has a reversed sense in which some unnamed person is unpacking the box, undressing the baby, unzipping the jacket, or unwrapping the gift. Of course, sometimes only one meaning is possible, as in (the classic example) Antarctica is uninhabited, which cannot mean that someone is uninhabiting Antarctica.

    The Oxford English Dictionary 2018 update gives nearly 300 un- plus adjective combination, including unadult, unblasé, unsorry, and un-with-it. Nouns with un- are usually derived from adjectives, so they carry the sense of not rather than reversal: uneasiness, untruth, and so on.

    Curiously, in a handful of words un– seems unnecessary but shows up anyway. The most widely used is unloose/unloosen, which the OED attests as early as the fourteenth century. Perhaps analogy with other un-verbs (untie, unfasten, unleash) is a factor in the unnoticed redundancy. Unthaw, meaning to thaw out, is attested as early as 1700, and today may even be heard in your own kitchen.

    I have to say I like un-with-it.

  45. John Emerson says:

    Probably mentioned above, but the word “flammable” was invented because a few took the “in-“ of “inflammable” (from “inflame”) as a negative on the model of “inedible”.

  46. David Marjanović says:

    From a German perspective it looks like ent- “dis-, de-” merged into un-. Indeed, unfriend & unfollow have been calqued/nativized as entfreunden & entfolgen.

    (…though these still sound more clumsy than the originals. Entfreunden sounds like you’re relieving someone else of their friends; entfolgen doesn’t make immediate sense at all.)

  47. John Cowan says:

    the word “flammable” was invented

    As either Safire or Follett says, giving his (somewhat coerced) approval to this word: “Semiliteracy is not a capital crime.”

    From a German perspective it looks like ent- “dis-, de-” merged into un-.

    To some degree, yes. The original cognate of ent- in Old English is and-, fundamentally the same as the conjunction, but now completely unproductive. This has weak forms an-, ond-, on-, a-, the use of which has grown over time to displace and-. itself: e.g. answer < OE andswerian, already ‘answer’ but in legal language (as still) ‘swear against’, take an oath in opposition to your accuser’s oath. (In those days, each side brought what were later called compurgatores to swear the same oath as the principal: judgement was given in favor of the side with the most oaths.)

    Of course, a- can correspond not only to ent- but also to in- (amid ‘inmitten’), or er- (awake ‘erwecken’), or ge- (alike, cognate with MHG gelīch > gleich), or Ghu knows what else. Some of these prefixed words were weeded out later, like onfang ’empfangen’, lost after Middle English. Emp- is an assimilated form of ent- once used before any /f/ but now confined to empfangen ‘receive, conceive’, empfehlen ‘recommend, commend’, and empfinden ‘sense > feel’.

    Anyway, the partial merger of and- into un- starts already in OE and accelerates after that. The general senses of words with this kind of un- are ‘reverse, cancel’ (unseal, unjam), ‘remove, deprive’ (unlid, unblossom), ‘free, release’ (unplaid, untrammel), ‘extract’ (unearth), and the redundant un- of unbare, unloose(n), unpeel, unrip, unthaw etc. So all of these were added to the already scary number of original meanings of un-. In the end, all flavors of un- are productive (unjam is mid-19C, with a doubtful 18C predecessor), and the remaining a-, an- are not.

  48. David Eddyshaw says:

    judgement was given in favor of the side with the most oaths

    This has potential as a suitably socially-distanced sport. Competitive oathing.

  49. Isn’t it what football (soccer) fans engage in before they decide to socially distance a bit less.

  50. David Eddyshaw says:

    Cricketers know the practice as “sledging.”

  51. I do notice this word, “unpacked” when I see it, but I never noticed that it is illogical. I notice it because of my emotional reaction: I like it. This is unusual.

    I read in English, but I do not read fiction, and I do not speak English. This “readers’ English” is emotionally very poor, like wearing rubber boots all the time. “Apple” is the same as Russian яблоко, but deprived of memories of ever eating one. “Still unpacked” is not like “apple”, it feels familiar and natural.

  52. Very interesting!

  53. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    I found a good example while reading about Skara Brae on wikipedia:

    Uncovered remains are known to exist immediately adjacent to the ancient monument in areas presently covered by fields, and others, of uncertain date, can be seen eroding out of the cliff edge a little to the south of the enclosed area.

    Un-uncovered remains, surely.

  54. Excellent example! Negatives are hard.

  55. Owlmirror says:

    The undiscovered country = the buried country; undiscovered remains = buried remains.

    The boxes are still undispacked.

  56. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    Are they still undiscovered if you know they’re there, even if you haven’t actually dug them up?

    Disuncovered, maybe!

Speak Your Mind