Monday, November 15, 2010

Double negative (2)

Whenever you use a double negative or multiple negative, you risk confusing your reader. Here’s an extreme example:

On October 20, Arsène Wenger (pictured), manager of the Arsenal Football Club (UK), commented on whether Jack Wilshere, a club player, was ready to start for the national team. Reuters said that Mr. Wenger said:

“If you asked me the reverse question, is he not ready to start for England, then it would be difficult to not say no.” (I added the boldface.)

Critique of the example

That sentence contains four negatives and the word difficult. That’s a lot for the reader to sort out.*

But that’s only the first layer of the confusion. If you’re interested in reading about additional layers, read “Difficulty over not saying no on not being ready,” by linguistics scholar Geoffrey K. Pullum.**

The Takeaway: Although they do have legitimate uses, double negatives and multiple negatives often confuse readers. Generally avoid them.

See disclaimer.

*Mr. Wenger is French. Out of courtesy, I usually don’t critique non-native speakers of English. I made an exception in Mr. Wenger’s case because he is fluent and because he may have used the multiple negative deliberately, as a media-relations tactic (see the comments on Mr. Pullum’s article).

**Unlike most academics, Mr. Pullum can write clearly and entertainingly. He is delightful.

1 comment:

  1. As a native speaker of English, I wish I was as skillful as Mr. Wenger in this situation.

    Bear in mind that your excellent advice is aimed at WRITERS ... who get to choose their subject matter, and can carefully consider exactly what they want to say about it.

    This is a different situation, where Mr. Wenger is asked a question, by the media, in public, that he really does not want to answer. And he doesn't. He expels a cloud of squid ink, and escapes. Masterful.