Negative Negativity

November 26, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Negative statements are harder to evaluate than are positive statements, though the difference may be only a microsecond of thought.
1.  True or False: Barack Obama is not president.
2.  True or False: Barack Obama is president.
Which question could you answer more quickly?

When multiple negatives keep switching the sign from positive to negative and back, a reader sinks into the mud and struggles to find the meaning of the sentence. 

In previous posts (here, for example) I’ve made up my own examples (“The Supreme Court today failed to overturn a lower-court ruling that denied a request to reverse . . .”).

I thought I was exaggerating. But try this.
“Bad acts should not long remain without an insufficient tax.”
Three negatives – should not, without, insufficient. Four if you count bad, the negative of good. Five if you count tax as the negative of reward

I am not making this up. It’s a variant on something from Robin Hanson’s blog, Overcoming Bias . Here is the verbatim quote
“good acts shouldn’t long remain with an insufficient subsidy. Or bad acts without an insufficient tax.”

An author shouldn’t refuse to leave unedited a sentence with so many negatives. Or do I mean the opposite?

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