The power of understatement compels you!

Old newspapers and magazines provide great material for collages, but before I begin snipping I read any articles that appeal to me. Lately I was leafing through an Observer magazine from March when I saw an interview with the actor Michelle Williams, whom I like. (She adorned the cover too, so the article was not a complete surprise.)

So I began reading, and before long I encountered some strange adverbial usage. The first example appears in the second line:

She is unassumingly small, pretty rather than stunning…

If we ignore the shallowness of these observations and agree that unassuming means not assuming, modest, without pretensions, what does “unassumingly small” mean? That is to say, how does unassuming qualify small? It seems an ungainly and illogical combination. “Unassuming and small” would have made sense. Why adverbialise unassuming? If it is because small can seem blunt without a flattering modifier, I suggest “unassuming and petite”. Or am I missing something?

A few lines later, at the end of the first paragraph, there is a comparable example:

Yet she has received a great deal of attention […] and very little of it for her compellingly understated screen work.

Now, I could almost be persuaded to allow “unassumingly small” – though as an editor I would question it and suggest alternatives – but I would require thorough brainwashing to be persuaded by “compellingly understated”.

Williams’s screen work may be compelling, and it may also be understated, but to describe as compelling the degree to which it is understated is an involution too far for me. I would bet that not even film reviewers are compelled by the understatement of an actor’s performance. At least, not habitually.

It’s also possible that I am being excessively fussy about this. I would welcome the case for the defence. In the meantime, I have to wonder why these phrases were written. Was it out of stubborn aversion to certain uses of the word “and”? Adherence to some other obscure non-rule? I’m stumped.

10 Responses to The power of understatement compels you!

  1. Fiona says:

    Ah, Stan. I know only too well the difficulties of resisting the compellingly unassuming adverb. Sometimes it just trips off the pen, ahem, thusly.

  2. Stan says:

    Fiona: If the text is fizzy enough, a writer can get away with almost anything, even compellingly unassuming adverbs! But the examples I mentioned strike me as ill-conceived at best.

    I am now pausing to flatter the jury with a tray of iced buns.

  3. Claudia says:

    For me, the two words, as used in this article, project negativeness towards Ms.Williams. I would assume that the author was trying to be subtle in his depreciation. Instead of: She could be good but… And stating clearly what he sees as lacking: A stunning, strong presence. I could be wrong!

  4. Funny enough, I’m having the opposite reaction. I don’t like “compellingly understated,” but I can get on board with it: when faced with a film full of dramatic (or melodramatic) acting, a quiet, subtle performance can be quite effective and evocative. It’s the quiet girl leaning against the wall at a rollicking party: she doesn’t bring attention to herself, and that’s why she grabs your attention.

    I’d prefer “her compelling, understated work,” but that bugs me much less than “unassumingly small,” which suggests some sort of judgment (whether something is assuming or not) based on a physical reality (small) — especially when placed in context:

    Michelle Williams is not one of those actresses who sets out to grab attention. She is unassumingly small, pretty rather than stunning and she doesn’t go in for melodramatic pouts or look-at-me histrionics.

    Only that last in the list is fully under Williams’ control, the second is debatable (through use of beauty products) but ultimately genetic, and the first is entirely genetic; but the diction and tone of the intro seems to suggest that Williams’ height is somehow the result of a conscious effort on her part not to grab attention.

    I’ll put on some coffee to go with those iced buns.

  5. Stan says:

    Claudia: I think the journalist rates Ms. Williams’s acting ability very highly, but his early emphasis on her physical appearance does him little credit. There is also a line about the public’s “bulimic” appetite for celebrity culture, which seems to me another attempt to be clever instead of accurate.

    Kellie: Thank you for your thoughtful analysis (and for the coffee). I agree with much of it, except the extent of genetic influence: physical size is influenced by environmental variables too.

    At the risk of appearing to backtrack, I feel I should say that while writing the brainwashing bit I re-read the troublesome phrases and found that their acceptability to me had flipped. I still disliked both, but I had a bigger problem with “unassumingly small” – as you do. But rather than re-write and hedge and second-guess my arguments, as I am wont to do, I decided to let the post stand – though I qualified my non-acceptance of “compellingly understated” with the last line in the penultimate paragraph.

    The point you make in your first paragraph is a good one, but I dismissed it when writing the post because I can’t apply it to Michelle Williams. In the two or three of her films I have seen, she has been excellent, often understated, sometimes suitably emotional, but never “compellingly understated”. In recent memory only Will Ferrell has achieved compelling understatement, in Stranger Than Fiction

  6. Ah, but Stan, just because you disagree that Michelle Williams’ acting is “compellingly understated” doesn’t make the phrase itself questionable.

    I’m with you on “unassumingly small”, though. ‘Unassuming’ is close in meaning to ‘modest’, and another meaning of ‘modest’ is ‘small’ (but not too small), so I can see what the writer was trying to do…

    Thought-provoking post. Thanks.

  7. Stan says:

    JD: Also a fair point. I questioned “compellingly understated” because I thought the writer was trying too hard to be stylish instead of meaningful, or because he may have meant “compelling and understated”. But I could well be wrong, in which case I retract and deny everything, and add that you’ll never catch me alive.

    Yes, another meaning of modest is small, but I don’t think that meaning applies to unassuming. “Unassumingly small” still seems virtually meaningless to me.

  8. <I agree with much of it, except the extent of genetic influence: physical size is influenced by environmental variables too.

    Very true, and I indeed stand corrected. But the article’s author will still be hard-pressed to convince me that Williams chose to be short out of modesty.

    JD took the words right out of my mouth about “compellingly understated,” but I’m still fully in support of “unassumingly small” as purple gibberish. Though I have to laugh at the thought of taking JD’s suggestion to an extreme and translating “unassumingly small” as “smally small” (or small-ly small): the writer does seem particularly fascinated by Williams’ size, or lack thereof:

    . . . seeming even tinier in the flesh than on screen. Still only 28, she looks even younger, almost teenage. With her porcelain features and a large scarf wrapped around her neck, she seems to embody the very idea of vulnerability.

  9. Fiona says:

    Stan, I’ll add this: in the final analysis, you’re right. Neither adverb makes sense as qualifying the adjective in question. I agree that it’s style over meaning, and this lack of attention galls me. Even if I have at times fallen victim to the compelling adverb myself. And let’s face it, compelling is such a great word, but how many things are ever really compelling in the first place? Not to mention unassuming.

    Reading that interview now, I find a lot to object to (or perhaps that’s just me being Mondayish). “Events have since enabled her to learn. . . ” – what’s wrong with “Events have taught her”? And “she seems to embody the very idea of vulnerability”? Bleugh.

    I did love Wendy and Lucy, though.

  10. Stan says:

    Kellie: Yes, the writer’s strange fascination with Williams’s size struck me too, and was partly what persuaded me to take him to task.

    Fiona: All writers lapse now and then, but we can expect to be upbraided if our lapses are bad enough. I’ve used “compelling” rather lazily myself on occasion, usually when describing a film, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never abused adverbs like the examples above. (Or if I did, I wasn’t paid for it.)

    Like you I disliked that line about the actor’s vulnerability, though I couldn’t decide if it smacked of chauvinism, wanton presumptuousness, or what. There is another item in the article that I might write about – a copy-editing peculiarity – and then I’ll be done with it.

    I’ve heard very good things about Wendy and Lucy, and will definitely see it sometime.

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