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…
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.