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Do Four Negatives make a Positive?

October 25, 2011

Some words have a built-in negative meaning, so you can write in a negative way without using words like ‘not’ and ‘no’. You probably knew that, but it was worth saying because the rest of this blog would be very confusing if you didn’t. I mean words like ‘deny’ which means ‘not agree’, and ‘refuse’ which means ‘not accept’. The following sentence in this morning’s Independent contained so many that I had to read it with and without my glasses several times before I understood it.

“More than 80 of his MPs defied a three-line whip to vote against the Government over its refusal to allow a referendum on EU withdrawal.”

So run that past me one more time. Who wants what again?

There was a three-line whip to vote against the Government.  No that can’t be right. Let’s take this one step at a time.

More than 80 of Cameron’s MPs did NOT follow the whip. (Which suggests that  they voted the way the Government did NOT want them to.) The Government does NOT want a referendum. The referendum (which we aren’t going to have even though 80 MPs didn’t say they didn’t want it) was to ask people if they want NOT to be in Europe.

Good. I am glad we have got that sorted out. And we haven’t even mentioned the politics.

I am a great fan of the Independent, but the Guardian definitely wins on clarity this time:

“…nearly half of Cameron’s backbenchers defied a three-line whip and voted in favour of a motion calling for a referendum on whether Britain should remain in the EU on current terms, whether to leave or whether to renegotiate Britain’s membership.”

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Phillip Sheahan permalink
    October 25, 2011 18:32

    In no way am I condoning this attempt – however well meaning – to prick the bubble of political pomposity and journalistic circumlocution. An outbreak of clarity can only shed truth and light. A dangerous combination that may force open the closed door of common sense.

    That said … this is an excellent observation and a very worthwhile blog read. Well said, Jane.

  2. Philip Taylor permalink
    October 31, 2011 15:18

    To my mind the Guardian wording is also good because it avoids the word “not”. I notice you put each “NOT” in your clarification in upper case to be sure readers did not miss it. My advice is to avoid using “not” in writing if at all possible, as it is amazing how often readers miss this little word and understand the opposite of what was intended.

    • December 6, 2011 09:50

      Absolutely right Philip! Missing the word ‘not’ is very easy to do and makes nonsense of what we are reading. Failing to notice ‘not’ often leaves the syntax of the sentence perfectly intact, leaving readers oblivious to their mistake. I have a mental picture of ‘not’ as a rubber duck in a rough sea shouting ‘hey! I’m here! I change the meaning of the sentence!’… but no-one can hear it.
      Thanks for the comment.
      Jane

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