Quick tip: Rephrase negatives into positives

Quick tip: Rephrase negatives into positives

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.

A “negative” in this context means saying that something is not the case (see Merriam-Webster’s definition for “negate”1). The most obvious example is when you use the word “not”:

Other words that indicate negation include:

  • no
  • except
  • less than
  • avoid
  • undo
  • 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-day

Jane 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?

With negatives

If you do not submit all documents by 31 January, your application will not be considered.

Recast positively

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.

After: Positive

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”

Some examples:

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.

Summary

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.

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Footnotes

  1. “Negative” and “positive” are also used to reflect the feeling of optimism, constructiveness, or confidence (or lack of, in the case of “negative”), but that’s not what I’m referring to here.

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