Navigating Negative Constructions

The negative construction in English: We need it to state something is incorrect or not true. For example, if we look into a clear sky, we have the verbal component to express It is not raining.

At the same time, English teachers and communication coaches will advise us to use negative constructions with care and restraint for a reason. Negative constructions can make us work harder at comprehension; they can also trigger subconscious resentment or resistance, as well as be unhelpful, as we’ll see in a moment. When receiving information, our minds are more naturally wired to receive positive constructions.

Examples
(Negative) Do not use the main entrance when entering the facility. (Beyond being a negative construction, it leaves open the question of how to enter the facility.)
(Positive) Use the side doors when entering the facility.

(Negative) She does not often talk at parties.
(Positive) She’s typically quiet at parties.

(Negative) Your main point shouldn’t be in the final paragraph. (Where then should it go?)
(Positive) Place your main point near the beginning.

The differences between negative and positive statements about the same idea are clear. The positive achieves more, many times with fewer words.

As mentioned, we will still sometimes need negative constructions to identify what is incorrect or not true. We simply want to be aware of some of their pitfalls. Let’s review one area of the negative many of us are familiar with.

Is It True—or Isn’t It?
By now we’ve probably seen both live and fictionalized courtroom proceedings in which attorneys ask a question such as “Is it not true you were in the vehicle involved in the hit and run?”

This exemplifies how including a negative can make an expression evasive or slippery. Is someone being asked to tell the truth or the not-truth? The subject could provide different responses:

Response: No, it’s true. I was in the vehicle.
Response: Yes, it’s true I was in the vehicle.

Easy enough, it might seem, but the negative construction forces the subject to think more than if simply asked “Were you in the vehicle involved in the hit and run?” To this, the subject could just say “yes” or “no.” The simpler question also requires fewer words.

In addition, the question as posed by the attorney can leave room for the subject to be elusive because a negative statement has already been offered.

Response: Yes, it is not true. I was not in the vehicle.
Response: No, it’s not true I was in the vehicle.

It’s possible this word play by the attorney can be a subtle ploy to further force or corner the matter of truth by clouding intent with the negative: further proof that the mind works harder and gets confused without the positive form. A question posed negatively could even work subliminally on a juror’s mind by suggesting the subject is skirting the truth.

In writing as in life, the negative is sometimes necessary and unavoidable. In our daily discourse, however, such constructions may steer us away from clarity and efficiency if used and relied on too much. By keeping composition positive in form, we will promote more-effective message delivery and comprehension.

 

Pop Quiz

Using what you’ve learned in this article, choose the better sentence from each pair.

1a. We can see hardly anything through the fog.
1b. We can’t see hardly nothing through the fog.

2a. I agree with you.
2b. I don’t disagree with what you’re saying.

3a. Trey told Tina not to overcook the eggs.
3b. Trey told Tina to boil the eggs for five minutes.

4a. Is it not true that you stayed out an hour past curfew?
4b. Did you stay out an hour past curfew?

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1a. We can see hardly anything through the fog.
1b. We can’t see hardly nothing through the fog.

2a. I agree with you.
2b. I don’t disagree with what you’re saying.

3a. Trey told Tina not to overcook the eggs.
3b. Trey told Tina to boil the eggs for five minutes.

4a. Is it not true that you stayed out an hour past curfew?
4b. Did you stay out an hour past curfew?

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