Negative to Positive

January 7, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Orwell disliked the “not un-” formation because it tried to make the banal sound profound. It’s a not unjustifiable complaint, and when Orwell says that, I couldn’t fail to disagree with him less.

I, too, try to avoid the “not un-” construction.  I’m not worried about being nailed for trying to pass off my banality as profundity. I just want to avoid double negatives. That sentence in the above paragraph has four negatives - couldn’t, fail, disagree, less – and  I’m still not sure whether it means I agree with Orwell or disagree with him. The thicker the multiple negatives, the harder it is for the reader to grope through them to the meaning of the sentence.

Even the writer can stumble. I read a recent blog post on how FDA regulations make it difficult for food companies to label their foods “Not Genetically Modified.” It linked to a WaPo story with this example:
[The FDA] told the maker of Spectrum Canola Oil that it could not use a label that included a red circle with a line through it and the words “GMO,” saying the symbol suggested that there was something wrong with genetically engineered food.
Here is what the comment* said:
it would be nice to buy products that were labeled GMO-free. I can’t buy them – not because there’s no demand for them, not because no manufacturers are unwilling to sell me products so labeled, but because the GMO industry has managed to change the rules to make that transaction impossible.
“Not because no manufacturers are unwilling to sell . . . ”  takes us into triple-negative territory. Even the person who wrote it must have been confused.  A half-hour later, the writer corrected the second part: “not because no manufacturers are WILLING. . . .” 

As an exercise in the power of positive thinking, I tried converting the negatives into affirmatives.
I can’t buy them, but why not?  The demand is there. The manufacturers are willing to sell me products so labeled. But the GMO  industry has managed to change the rules to make that transaction impossible.
It may sound less profound, but I think it’s clearer.

* I use this example only because it happened to be close at hand.  It’s a casual comment, probably written in haste and not proofread. But I’ve run across the same kind of writing in more formal venues. 

(An earlier post on a more common version of this – “cannot be underestimated” – is here .)


Anonymous said...

A double-plus good post.

Jay Livingston said...

Now that's positive.