Ask an English Teacher: “Like” vs. “Not Unlike”

A regular reader of this blog recently wrote with the following quandary:

Q: It drives me crazy when I hear someone say “It’s not dissimilar to…” or “It’s not unlike…”  THEN IT’S SIMILAR OR IT’S LIKE, YOU IDIOT! Please explain this language phenomenon to me.

A: What we’re dealing with here is a matter of degree. To say one thing is “like” another is like saying the two things have a lot in common. To say one thing is “not unlike” something else is not unlike saying that while the two things may be largely different, they still have a couple of common traits.

Q: Sounds to me like a mechanism for avoiding a commitment.

A: It’s not unlike that at all.

Q: I think I’ll go pull out my fingernails with pliers.  The pain is not unlike what I feel when I hear someone say these things.

A: Now you’re catching on!

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