No, No, a Thousand Times No

May 21, 2015 
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Financial Times wants me to tweet this quote from Martin Wolf, “widely considered to be one of the world's most influential writers on economics” (Wikipedia).

I admit, there is tweet temptation. But not for the reason the FT thinks.  No, what strikes me in this quote is the multiple negatives. They leave me utterly confused as to what the passage means. Here’s a simplified version.

It is impossible to believe that the government cannot find investments . . . that do not earn more than the real cost of funds. If that were not true, the UK would be finished.

The first sentence has three negatives. The next sentence not only has another negative, but it throws in a mysterious pronoun – that. If you can figure out what that is referring to, you’re a better reader than I am.

I have posted before (here most recently) about the confusion of negatives that carom about, reversing and re-reversing the direction of the sentence. Yet here we have one of the word’s most influential writers tossing one negative on top of another, and another. Personally, I find it impossible not to believe that writers can’t learn not to avoid simplifying their prose by using positive constructions.

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