What casts a sharper image—she was not very graceful or she was accident prone? To write vividly, we need to focus on what is, not what isn’t. So often we invert our images with negative constructions. If I wrote, “Sam was never on time,” I steer your thoughts to promptness, rather than if I said, “Sam was always late,” which instead turns your mind to someone waiting for Sam.
If we write that there was no light in the cave, the first thing the reader will see is the light that’s not there. Constructing our sentences in the negative emphasizes what is untrue, while writing in the positive, the cave was dark, highlights the condition we’re trying to convey to our readers.
The positive form of a statement is straightforward, quicker to apprehend than what is written in the negative.
- He did not think that studying Latin was a sensible way to use one’s time. (negative)
- He thought studying of Latin a waste of time. (positive)
- He resolved not to watch as much television and read instead. (negative)
- He resolved to watch less television and read more. (positive)
Both examples demonstrate weakness inherent in the word not.
To understand the negative requires that we translate it into an affirmative because the negative only implies what we should do by telling us what we shouldn’t. The affirmative states it directly.
As a rule, it is better to express even a negative in positive form.
|did not remember||forgot|
|did not pay any attention to||ignored|
|did not have much confidence in||distrusted|
We need not translate every negative into an affirmative, for (as this sentence illustrates) we sometimes have a special reason to emphasize not, no, or never. The negative is effective when used as a means of denial, contradiction, or contrast. Once again, break the rules for a reason.
Her loveliness I never knew. Until she smiled at me.
Placing negatives and positives in opposition adds punch.
- Not charity, but simple justice.
- Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.
- Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.
Also, save the auxiliaries would, should, could, may, might, and can for situations involving actual uncertainty. If you use these words casually (carelessly), your writing will communicate doubt and lack authority.
- The applicant can make a good impression by being neat and punctual.
- The applicant will make a good impression by being neat and punctual.
Negative constructions tend to baffle readers. There is no reason not to believe that if you don’t use too many negatives you won’t confuse the reader. To translate: Don’t use a double negative.
Form the Chicago Tribune—
“Stranded and uncertain of their location, the survivors endured for six days without hardly a trace of food.”
Since hardly, like scarcely, has the grammatical effect of a negative, it requires no further negation. Make it “with hardly.”
The intrusion of a second negative is a sign of fuzzy writing. At best it will force the reader to pause and perform some verbal arithmetic, adding negative to negative, as in this example from the London Times: “The plan is now thought unlikely not to go ahead.”
With an appreciation for the rules of style, writers sometimes break them for effect. A double negative often can get a laugh from readers, as in Douglas Adams’ description of a machine dispensing “a substance almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.”
Another example of deliberate double negative construction—one in which a negative in the main clause is paralleled in a subordinate construction—can emphasize or heighten the statement’s drama.
“There was none too poor or remote not to feel an interest.” —Jane Austen
“Nor what he said, though it lacked form a little, was not like madness.” —Shakespeare
The point with any writing guideline is to know its benefit and master its function. Don’t depart from wisdom unless you can achieve a greater wisdom.