Accentuate the Positive, Eliminate the Negative

April 3, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Be Positive. That’s one of the rules I try to follow in writing (in life, it’s even harder). Phrase things in the affirmative rather than in the negative. It’s especially important in constructing true-false and multiple-choice items for exams. I don’t want to force students into the knotty logic of double negatives.

In prose as well, those multiple negatives get confusing. And negatives take many forms besides variations on no, not, and never. Think of those Supreme Court summaries in the newspaper. “The court failed to overturn a lower-court ruling that denied a request to reverse . . .”

And now this just in from the world of football and guns.

”Plaxico’s contribution to our championship season in 2007 can never be underestimated or undervalued,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. “He displayed tremendous determination throughout that season.”

Get it? His contribution can never be undervalued. That means that no matter how little a value you place on Plaxico’s contribution, that value can never be so low that it’s beneath its true value. So that true value must be very low indeed.

The literal meaning of the coach’s remark is just the opposite of what he means and what most people will hear. (And this wasn’t just some off-the-cuff comment. It was a written statement for the team’s official Website.) But the logic of the double negative – never and undervalue – is too difficult to unravel.

I realize that only a handful of tight-assed writers or logicians will be concerned with this technical error. Most people, they could care less.

Update. I e-mailed the Coughlin quote to Mark Liberman at The Language Log, and he has now posted about it. (Apparently, Prof. Liberman either has no hat to tip or is a habitual reader of Giants press releases.) Coach Coughlin, Liberman points out, is not alone. “Cannot be underestimated” to mean the opposite of its literal meaning is fairly common. Googling the phrase gets returns in six figures. I tried a Lexis-Nexis search for the last two years, and it offered its maximum of 1000 hits, including at least one headline. Liberman’s post, with links to earlier Language Log posts is here.


maxliving said...

"That means that no matter how little a value you place on Plaxico’s contribution, that value can never be so low that its beneath its true value."

Jay Livingston said...

Correction made. Thanks.