The Lack of a Need for Unclear Negative Writing Can Never Be Underestimated

January 4, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Twelve years ago in this blog, I wrote a post with the title, “Accentuate the Positive; Eliminate the Negative.”*  I was borrowing the title of a hit song of the 1940s. The post, unlike the song, was about language and writing, not general philosophical outlook. My point was simply that the more negatives a writer loads into a sentence, the harder it is for readers, and sometimes the writer, to understand the meaning of that sentence.

Those negative words include more than  just no, not, and never. My made-up example was parody of those newspaper summaries of Supreme Court decisions. “The court failed to overturn a lower-court ruling that denied a request to reverse . . .”

Do real writers write like that? Yes, sometimes to the point that they lose track of their multiple negations and write something whose literal meaning is the opposite of what they intended. Here’s economist Noah Smith at Bloomberg a few days ago (here). He was arguing that Texas, if it is to succeed in its effort to become a technology hub, will have to do something about “noncompete” clauses that prevent employees from leaving one firm and taking a job with a competing firm.

Banning noncompetes would be inconsistent with Texas’ principles and reputation as a defender of free markets. Noncompete agreements are restrictions on the free movement of labor; they gum up markets.

 Banning, noncompetes, inconsistent. Smith nails the triple. 

Smith is an economist (and a Texan). He likes free markets and competition. If noncompetes gum up markets, then banning them would free up those markets. So banning them would be consistent with principles of free markets. What he meant was, “Noncompetes are restrictions on the free movement of labor; they gum up markets. Banning them would be consistent with Texas’ principles of free markets.”

*Other examples noted in this blog include a Financial Times piece by someone  “widely considered to be one of the world's most influential writers on economics” (“No, No, a Thousand Times No”) and even the GSS ( “The Power of Positive Phrasing”).

No comments: