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Delete Double Negatives in Your Business Writing

Business writers are among the most guilty in using "not" and similar words to hedge bets, but our Take Your Writing to the Next Level! webinar and online writing courses can help you find alternative and positive ways to say what you really mean and avoid ambiguity. This includes learning to eliminate the double negative.

What Is a Double Negative?

A double negative combines a verb's negative form (cannot, dishonest, inconsistent) with a pronoun (nobody), adverb (never) or conjunction (neither) that also is negative. Here are a few examples:

"I didn't see nothing."

"He couldn't hardly keep up."

"I think the new incentive program won't last barely a month."

In short, using both negative words turns this into a positive statement. When taken literally, "I didn't see nothing" means you saw something! We can help you turn your writing around by choosing the most appropriate and positive words to say what you really mean.

Why Double Negatives Matter

In general, writers should reserve the word "not" to deny or prove a point. They should never use it as a way to evade the point!

For example: "He is not a bad employee" shows how use of the double negative might hedge your bets. Maybe you are reluctant to praise this employee because you have misgivings or are unaware of others' opinions and like to go with the majority. But by using a double negative, you are causing confusion and even indirectly insulting the employee. Think what would happen if you told your spouse, "That was not a bad meal." He or she would assume you found it pretty tasteless, burnt or otherwise borderline edible. Be specific. "The meat was a little dry but had good taste." As for that employee: "He is an effective worker" or "He is productive but needs a little guidance."

The same goes for use of not along with a positive word such as "He was not very often on time for our meetings." It is much clearer to say, "He was rarely on time for our meetings."

Dating back to the "original" grammar rules, Strunk and White emphasized avoiding negative phrases and double negatives in any writing. I would say they matter even more in business writing, where ambiguity can introduce a host of problems.

Turn It Around

The first step in eliminating double negatives is judicious use of the word not. Instead of "not honest," use "dishonest." And there is no need for additional negative descriptors with the word. Dishonest has a clear and established meaning of its own. "I do not recall" in a legal proceeding can sound fishy. But "I forgot" is a clear statement. Going back to my other earlier sentences:

"He couldn't hardly keep up" becomes "He barely kept up" or even better, "he lagged behind."

"I think the new incentive program won't last barely a month" becomes ""I think the new incentive program will last a month at most" or "I think this will be a short-lived program."

Quit suggesting doubt and replace it with clear certainty. Learn more tips on writing positively and clearly in our Business Writing that Counts! webinar series or Take Your Writing to the Next Level! webinar. Sign up online or call us at 425-485-3221 for more information.

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