June

 

Negative sentence construction is weird. Don’t you think?

What am I actually asking you? Do you not think it? Why in the world would I want to know if you do not think it?

Or, if I want to take you to lunch, I could ask Aren’t you hungry?  

If you answer Yes! you might think that means you’re eager for a taco.

But in that sense, your answer Yes actually means Correct, I am not hungry.

This weekend, my wife was headed to the grocery store. She asked me Aren’t you coming with me? (Are not you coming with me?)

To let her know I was planning to join her, I should have answered No (No, I am not not coming with you.)

But I knew her expectation so I answered Yes to imply Yes, I am coming with you.

This strange negative construction twists our brain out of shape.

A double negative is when you use two negative words or constructions within a single clause. In some languages like Portuguese, Spanish, and Russian, if you want to express a negative connotation, you use a negative throughout the phrase or sentence.

For example in Spanish you might say No hay ningun problema.  There isn’t no problem. In that case, you’d mean There isn’t a problem.

But it usually doesn’t work that way in English. When you have a single clause - one idea with a subject and an action - you have one negative in the clause.

We’re accustomed to thinking and speaking positively. When we write in negative construction, we make it hard for our reader to understand us.

When you’re going to meet a friend at the airport, you wouldn’t tell her If you fail to arrive by 5:00, I cannot pick you up.

Instead, you might say If you get in by 5:00 I can pick you up.

Business people like to be negative.

Stuffy bureaucratic writing often uses this kind of negative sentence structure.

No approval of any noise compatibility program, or any portion of a program, may be implied in the absence of the agency’s approval.    

Positive construction works better. 

You must get the agency’s approval for any noise compatibility program or any portion of a program.

Here’s another example in negative construction.

An application for a grant does not become void unless the applicant’s failure to provide requested information is unreasonable under the circumstances.

Here’s the positive construction. 

An application for a grant remains active if the applicant provides the information we request within a reasonable time.

Even the masters do it.

I think one of the oddest examples of negative construction comes from one of America’s greatest writers – Henry David Thoreau. Here’s an excerpt from the second chapter of Walden Pond

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  

He wanted to not learn what the essential facts of life had to teach? I do not not think that is not what he meant.

Emphasis changes meaning.

There are times when the double negative works when you add emphasis. For example, when you tell your teenage son he’s being lazy for just sitting on the couch doing nothing all Saturday morning, he might reply I’m not doing nothing, I’m thinking!

In that case, he’s right. He’s thinking about putting emphasis on the second negative – nothing.

So put your feet up, pour a cup of tea, and think about all the positive ways you can communicate to help you not continue to be unclear to your readers.

 

We don’t need no education.

Roger Waters

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Things we like.

The other day, I saw this double negative on Facebook.

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Things to ponder.

Ungrammatical earworms.

 

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