Breaking the Rules of Writing

June 1, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ah, litotes: “a figure of speech which employs an understatement by using double negatives.”

 I recently came across this quote from John Kenneth Galbraith.*

Wealth is not without its advantages and the case to the contrary, although it has often been made, has never proved widely persuasive.

Orwell, in his famous essay on politics and language, decries the “not un-“ construction because it tries to make the banal sound profound. But it also sacrifices clarity. Saying what something is rather than what it is not makes it specific. Also, we grasp a positive more quickly than two negatives. (See here, here, here, or here.)

Galbraith uses “not without” because he wants to understate. Saying that yes wealth does have some advantages makes those who would deny that idea seem even more ridiculous. 

The negative construction in the punch line –  “has never proved widely persuasive” – uses the same strategy of understatement. He could have said, “but nobody really believes it,” but Galbraith’s phrasing – the “widely” is crucial to the wit of the line –  implies that there are actually some people foolish enough to believe the myth.** 

Who are these people? Identifying them is not important, which is why the passive voice (“the case. . .has often been made”) here works perfectly well.

In a sentence of 23 words, Galbraith uses two constructions that I usually try to avoid – the passive voice and the double negative – but here they work wonderfully. Apparently, the rules don’t apply when you are using irony, especially when you are using it to undermine the essential folly of “the conventional wisdom” (a term coined by Galbraith, by the way). In this case, that conventional wisdom is the idea that money can’t buy what’s important in life – happiness, for example, or elections.


* Howard Wainer uses a slightly different version in his recent book Truth and Truthiness.

** A famous Sophie Tucker quote expresses the same idea; “I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor, and believe me, rich is better.” As with the Galbraith quote, its wit depends on some people having tried to make the case to the contrary. 

1 comment:

brandsinger said...

Yes, Jay, you are so right--money can't buy happiness or elections. This was proven by the pathetic Jeb Bush campaign, as generously financed as it was.

Money can't buy elections -- and campaign finance laws do far more harm than good in trying to keep certain money out of elections by limiting the rights of some to exercise freedom of speech. This is not un-obvious to anyone who values the First Amendment and despises bureaucratic infringements on citizens getting together to advance their political agendas.