How to Use the Word "Not" and Avoid Double Negatives
Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (with half a million other people who saw Wild), a priest, a rabbi, and a lawyer meet at a fork. The priest complains about the crowds. “I thought Easter communion was bad.” The rabbi commiserates. “Oy vey.” The lawyer consults her map. “Hmmm,” she says. “It is not unlikely that the path that is not to the east will not take us to nowhere there are no people.” The rabbi says, “What is this, some kind of joke?” The priest says, “It’s not funny.” “But,” says the lawyer, “it’s not unfunny either.” Whereupon, the priest and the rabbi pepper-spray the lawyer. The moral of the story: first, never seek solitude in a place made suddenly popular by a book or a movie; and second, try to communicate in the affirmative or expect consequences.
The Implicit Not
In Style, the Basics of Clarity and Grace, Joseph Williams lists verbs, conjunctions, and prepositions he calls “implicitly negative,” verbs like preclude, contradict, prohibit; conjunctions like except, unless, however; and prepositions like without, against. Williams writes, “You can baffle readers if you combine not with [these] words.” Take this sentence from a contract concerning my last book:
Party of the First Part will not be precluded from publishing any work that is not a nonfiction book.
Party of the First Part may publish any works of fiction and, except for books, any works of nonfiction.
When we use multiple negatives, we force our reader to stop and identify them; then he has to hark back to eighth grade algebra—where his math teacher first posited that two negatives make a positive—and toss them out two at a time to get at our meaning. A good writer wants nothing to slow the reader’s pace or interfere with his understanding. [See Tip: “I Can’t Hardly Believe It’s Thanksgiving”]
The Ambiguous Not
Some people call this “damning by faint praise.” Authors see it regularly in the New York Times Book Review. It’s the compliment that isn’t, the not that’s not not, but is, as in:
You are not a bad writer (husband, manager, skier).
This sentence does not mean, “You are Nabokov (every woman should be so lucky; we want you to run the whole division; the deeper the powder, the better you look).” It means, “Your report confused me (I want a divorce; you’re fired; and you suck even on a groomed run.)” Unless you mean to demean, avoid pairing not with a negative adjective like bad. It’s easier to leave out the not. Same meaning.
The Fancy-Dancing Not
We could feed many people if we had the billions of dollars clients pay lawyers to argue whether “not inconsistent” means “consistent” or “not undamaged” means “damaged,” or not with any other negative prefix—in, un, anti, il, dis—means the opposite:
She is not dishonest.
Judges know these double negatives often mean the lawyer is hiding something. So the judge asks:
“Can you give me an example of a not dishonest act?”
“Let me see,” says the lawyer.
“Are you saying she’s honest?”
“Not exactly,” says the lawyer.
“What are you saying?”
I realize a thousand examples (I will be deluged with them all) allow space between the two—not this does not equal this!—but rarely is that space wider than two human hairs. If you must use double negatives to be vague, expect uncomfortable pushback. And bring your fancy-dancing shoes.
The Ambiguous Not Too
As we see in this statement, combining not with too creates a thought the reader can interpret two ways, each the opposite of the other:
You cannot make it too simple.
This means either: No matter how simple I make it, it will not be simple enough. Or: If I make it too simple, I will bore everybody. Unless you intend to say something without saying anything—I cannot praise him too highly—say it directly:
Keep it simple.
The Strunk and White Not
Rule 15 of The Elements of Style: “Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.” Instead of writing words with not in the middle, use the affirmative:
He was not very often on time.
He usually came late.
They call this “the weakness inherent in the word not. Consciously or unconsciously, the reader is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; the reader wishes to be told what is. Hence, as a rule, it is better to express even a negative in positive form.”
not many – few
not often – rarely
did not remember – forgot
did not pay any attention to – ignored
Back in the Wild and on the trail, the lawyer has stopped screaming. Through eyes bleeding off her chin, she looks at the rabbi and the priest. "I was not unwrong," she says. "The path that is not to the east will take us to nowhere there are no people.” Whereupon the rabbi and the priest pepper-spray her again.