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“I Can’t Hardly Believe Miami’s Gone!”

Identifying and Correcting Double Negatives

I’m quoting President Doe.


With Miami’s condominiums serving as artificial reefs and the Miami Seaquarium now stretching from Loxahatchee to the Bahamas, the President has sought to quell the rising tide of saltwater and public sentiment by noting that the climate on Earth has always been a bit capricious: "Why do you think we have all those fish fossils in Montana?" First Lady Jane Doe urges Americans to support her latest cause: “Adopt a Manatee.”


Personally, I am shocked that the President and First Lady waste so much time refuting climate change. Everybody already knows that this alarmist rhetoric comes from nothing but a bunch of scientists, the same ones who stage photo ops by placing people and cars in oak trees after one of our daily tornadoes. These so-called “scientists” are really pseudo-scientists looking for work. We all know that. As President Doe himself has said, “Climate change will not be real in my mind until the saltwater in St. Louis rises two feet above my zories.” Amen.


I suggest that the President pay more attention to far greater problems, like Americans’ incessant writing of negative words. This problem is real, it’s now, and it cannot be denied by deniers: Our human brains simply have to work too hard to assimilate negatives. Presidents, like Doe, congressional leaders, like what's-her-name, and a bunch of lawyers tie themselves in nots every day, and even they trip over sentences like this from a newspaper reporter:


The committee found that President Doe did not err in refusing to keep the initiative off the calendar.


Encountering negative words forces us to go through a two-step process to sort them out. First, we have to identify the negative words, which sometimes is difficult, but not too bad here:


The committee found that President Doe did not err in refusing to keep the initiative off the calendar.


With negative words identified, we now have to hark back to eighth-grade algebra--where we first learned that two negatives make a positive--and toss them out or combine them two at a time. As President Doe would say, “They love me; they love me not.”


The committee found that President Doe was correct in allowing the initiative to stay on the calendar.


Much clearer. No one has to stop and count; everyone understands the first time. For a lawyer, there will be times when did not err and was correct will not perfectly overlap, but remember that the sentence above appeared in a newspaper for the lay public.


If you're wondering about this tip's title, grammarians call the word hardly (scarcely, barely, seldom, and similar words) “negative in effect." So when we negate hardly, we have a double negative--like "I Can't Get Hardly Any Satisfaction." And that's okay for the leader of the Rolling Stones, but not for the leader of the free world. The quotation in the title should read, "I Can Hardly Believe Miami's Gone!" Otherwise, Mr. President, I am so right there with you in my zories.


Sometimes we have to use a negative, but we should avoid three kinds (see Tip "In the Land of Not"):


A simple negative made clearer and shorter in the affirmative:


This climate thing has not met with much success.

This climate thing has met with little success.


A negative followed by the word any:


President Doe did not conduct any polls himself.

President Doe conducted no polls himself.


And the plain old double (or triple or quadruple) negative:


The State Department is barred from disallowing entry.

The State Department must allow entry.


Some of you, especially the lawyers, might not agree that the last two sentences say the same thing. But before we stick with the former version, let's check it closely: Sometimes we prefer it only because we’re used to seeing it that way.


Note: At the push of a button, the WordRake editing software would have made the first two edits for you.


Your homework: As you drift off to sleep tonight, think about how you would rewrite this statement in the positive:


On whether to reelect President Doe, I could not fail to disagree with you less.


Sweet dreams, and in the morning, when you have the answer, call Anderson Cooper.

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About Gary Kinder

Gary Kinder

WordRake founder Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs for AMLAW 100 firms, Fortune 500 companies, and government agencies. He’s also a New York Times bestselling author. As a writing expert and coach, Gary was inspired to create WordRake when he noticed a pattern in writing errors that he thought he could address with technology.

In 2012, Gary and his team of engineers created WordRake editing software to help writers produce clear, concise, and effective prose. It saves time and gives confidence. Writing and editing has never been easier.

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