Posted by: Jack Henry | May 23, 2019

Editor’s Corner: When You Have a Choice, Write Positively

Don’t worry. This is not a self-help article. I’m not going to remind you that your glass is half full or that everyone’s a winner (but it is, and they are, right?). I’m going to discuss how and why to avoid negative constructions in your writing. And I’m going to explain why you should.

A negatively constructed sentence is often harder to decipher than a positively constructed sentence. Negative constructions can also, believe it or not, can trigger subconscious resentment or resistance. People always respond better when they’re told what they can or should do as opposed to what they can or should not.

Look at these two sentences, for example:

  • Don’t make personal phone calls during work hours. (negative)
  • Make your personal phone calls during breaks or before and after work hours. (positive)

Rather than just giving an order, the second example actually provides more information by telling you when it is appropriate to make personal calls.

Here are some other examples. Notice the difference in tone. And also notice that the information is clearer and more instructive in some of the positive constructions.

  • Don’t use sexist language in your writing.
  • Use gender neutral language in your writing.
  • She does not talk much at parties.
  • She is typically quiet at parties.
  • You should not throw bottles and cans in the trash.
  • Please throw bottles and cans into the recycling bin.

Sometimes, people use negative constructions to purposely confuse you or trick you into answering incorrectly.

  • Is it not true that you forgot to take the trash out four days this week?

If you answer yes, are you saying that you did or did not forget? My husband still isn’t quite sure.

Lawyers do this kind of thing all the time:

Question: Is it not true that you were at the scene of the crime earlier in the day?

Answer: Yes, I was not there. I mean, no, I was not there. I mean, I was there at some time. I mean, I wasn’t there that day. I mean, aarrggghhh! I’m going down for this aren’t I? Tell my mother I love her.

Donna Bradley Burcher | Senior Technical Editor | Symitar®

8985 Balboa Ave. | San Diego, CA 92123 | Ph. 619.278.0432 | Ext: 765432

About Editor’s Corner

Editor’s Corner keeps your communication skills sharp by providing information on grammar, punctuation, JHA style, and all things English. As editors, we spend our days reading, researching, and revising other people’s writing. We love to spend a few extra minutes to share what we learn with you and keep it fun while we’re doing it.

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