Here’s an easy tip to help you write more clearly: if you can, rephrase negatives into positives. This is especially useful when you’re writing instructions and test or survey questions.
Here’s a tip that I certainly never thought about until I started learning about plain language: rephrase negative sentences as positives, when you can. It will help your readers more easily understand you.
Other words that indicate negation include:
- less than
- words starting with “un-“, like unnecessary, unless
Why are negatives harder to understand than positives?
You may think that simple negatives are easy to understand, but Martin Cutts, in his Oxford Guide to Plain English, says:
When readers are faced with a negative, they must first imagine the positive alternative, and then mentally cancel it out.Martin Cutts, Oxford Guide to Plain English, 2020, p. 93
That’s two steps for their brain instead of one. Eliminate that extra mental work and readers will be able to more easily understand your writing—especially if they have low literacy levels in that language, a print disability, or temporary impairments, or if they face any other barriers.
Beware of double negatives
Especially terrible are double negatives, which cancel each other in meaning. As a young teen, I couldn’t read Jane Austen novels because of all the double negatives. For example:
… it is not unlikely that he should be at Mrs. Goddard’s to-dayJane Austen, Emma
The “not” and “un-” are the double negatives. I would mentally cross those out to come up with “it is likely that he should be at Mrs. Goddard’s to-day.”
Reading Jane Austen is for fun; if I misunderstand a sentence here and there, it’s not going to harm me. But using confusing double negatives is unforgivable in documents that people must read to function in life. (That’s why plain language is a civil right.)
Positively phrase instructions and questions
Rephrasing as positives is especially effective when giving instructions or questions on a test or survey. For example, compare these sentences. Which do you find easier to understand?
If you do not submit all documents by 31 January, your application will not be considered.
You must submit all documents by 31 January to be considered.
Or imagine you have the following multiple-choice questions in a test:
Test question with a negative
Which of the following is not a component of the ABC model?
Test question recast positively
Which of the following are components of the ABC model?
Survey question with a negative
Which of the following were not difficult to understand?
Survey question recast positively
Which of the following were easy to understand?
There may be a subtle difference between the two questions, but reflect whether that difference is important to you.
Exception: Use “not” for prohibitions
When prohibiting something, it’s fine to use “do not” and “must not.” In fact, those phrases are recommended in Simplified Technical English, which is used for technical documentation and meant to be easily used by non-English speakers. (See the section on strong prohibitions in technical writing, on Wikiversity.)
I guess “Do not get wet” (subtext: “or you will be electrocuted and die”) is more powerful than “Keep dry” (“unless you want to be electrocuted and die”—ha, I found the negative!) ⚡
How to rephrase negatives to positives
To rephrase your negatives into positives, take out your “not”s and imagine what the positive version might be.
Before: (Double) negative
Do not submit the form unless you have completed all sections.
Think what the action is that you want people to take.
Submit the form when you have completed all sections.
Or even simpler: “Complete all sections and submit the form.”
Martin Cutts notes that
- “not less than” can be replaced with “at least”
- “not” and “except” can be saved with “only”
Instruction with “no less than”
Use the salve no less than twice a day.
Replaced with “at least”
Use the salve at least twice a day.
Instructions with negatives, including “except”
If you fail to provide receipts, you may be denied reimbursement, except when the purchase was less than $20.
(I can’t even keep track of how many negatives are in that sentence…!)
Replaced with “only”
You must submit receipts to be reimbursed [only] for purchases $20 and above. (You do not need receipts for purchases under $20.)
As a reader, though, I prefer to omit the word “only” and add the additional text that’s in parentheses. It may be best to test which version is best understood by your readers.
Simple tip to write more clearly: Rephrase negatives into positives if possible.
- Negatives (and especially double negatives) force readers to do more mental work.
- Positive phrasing is effective for instructions and test and survey questions.
- Using “do not” is fine for prohibitions.
- Use positive language (plainlanguage.gov): Concise and very clear, this PlainLanguage.gov page has some great (terrible?) examples of negatives and how you might rephrase them.
- Clear communication: choose positive over negative phrasing (Government of Canada)
- Martin Cutt’s Oxford Guide to Plain Language (affiliate link), Oxford Press: 2020. See chapter 9 on “Converting negative to positive”