Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Complex sentencing

Double-negative Construction

A double-negative sentence is one that has two "negatives," and as we all know, two negatives make a positive. This is also known as a "lelote," but I am just going to say "double negative," because, duh, there are two negatives.


I don't not know what's going on.


I know what's going on.

Now there are more subtle double-negatives that don't begin with "N". For example:

I doubted that she didn't know me.

"Doubted" is a negative (synonym is "didn’t think").

So: I think she knew me.

There are a few of these subtle negatives:





In fact, some of the double-negative constructions below don't use "not" terms. But they're still presenting two negatives in the sentence.

What's the problem with that? This construction forces the reader to re-read and recalculate what the sentence really means. Once in a while you might want to confuse the reader, but if you don't, recast the sentence clearly, with positive terms that make clear what you mean. Here are some examples, where you end up with a single negative perhaps:

There is no reason to believe that this primary campaign won't be not only effective but also responsive.

Straight out:

This primary campaign will probably be both effective and responsive.

Few people outside of the United States disbelieve in the power of American commercialism.

Most people outside the United States believe in the power of American commercialism.

The point is not that the decline in income has not been arrested.

The point is that the decline in income has been arrested.

In our inability to write with emotion, we are not so different from those alienated suburban teens who not only don't have the vocabulary to express feelings but also don't have the freedom to invent a new vocabulary.


In our inability to write with emotion, we are like those alienated surburban teens who have neither the vocabulary of feeling nor the freedom to invent it.

No less wise a person than Charles Buckley was incapable of facing age gracefully.

Even as wise a person as Charles Buckley was incapable of facing age gracefully.


So what's the issue?

You usually want the reader to understand your meaning and not have to "translate" the sentence to make sense. So you might try translating it yourself first! Try to recast it as a positive sentence so that the reader can understand it immediately.

Now if most of your sentences are easily understandable, the infrequent double-negative construction will stand out as particularly meaningful. You've gained the trust of the reader that you do know how to convey information concisely in clear sentences. So that trust will have the reader approaching your few over-complicated sentences and trying to figure out why you made these more difficult.

Every sentence construction has its purpose. So there are reasons you might want to use the double-negative and other complicated constructions. Why would you choose to make a sentence more difficult to read? Well, you might want the reader to slow down and read slowly, maybe even read it twice or three times. You might want to convey a hedge or irony:

Bill is not unworthy of promotion.

Might mean:

Bill is more or less worthy of promotion, but I am not enthusiastic enough to recommend him.

Often double negatives are followed by a "but" or "however" which states something clearer:

Hemingway is not an unaccomplished stylist; however, his terse prose is an acquired taste.

Finally, though, an important purpose of the double negative is to allow for a second meaning, a deeper meaning, a subtext or ambiguity. Here's an example, from that master of subtext, Shakespeare:

What wouldst thou write of me, if thou shouldst praise me?

O gentle lady, do not put me to't;
For I am nothing, if not critical.

Here is why double negatives shouldn't be wasted just to over-complicate simple thoughts. The double negative here conveys the most subtle of character revelation.

Iago is a complicated man who lives within deception, and here, for a moment, he is being honest, if only in his sentence formulation. He is nothing except his contrariness, his resentment, his envy, and the very construction of the sentence ("I am nothing") presents his sense of his own emptiness, and then, the sad but honest corollary there-- If I am not critical, I am nothing. That is, as with enjambment in poetry, the double-negative sentence lets the reader get two simultaneous and perhaps contrasting or complementary meanings.

I can't stress this enough, however: LESS IS MORE. The fewer times you use over-complicated sentences, the stronger will be the effect. The reader will assume that it there is some reason you broke your usual comprehensible pattern, and look for the deeper meaning.

(Oh, if you're wondering if two positives can make a negative, let me introduce you to my teenagers. Their favorite term is, "Yeah, right." Now you have to say that aloud, with full adolescent sarcasm, to get that they mean, "Mom, you are so totally wrong.")


Kaitlyn R. Miller said...

Would you really call Iago's line there a double negative? I guess I think of "nothing" as a positive noun, at least there. "Nothing" is what he is. You could substitute "an idiot" there and have the sentence still make sense--"I am an idiot, if not critical." Unlike in one of your other double-negative examples: "Idiots outside of the United States disbelieve in the power of American commercialism." Actually, that works better than I thought it would, maybe because I replaced the whole noun phrase?

Maybe I'm just saying that nouns can't make double negatives in my opinion.

And I also wanted to point out that in Shakespeare's day, double negatives were a way to emphasize the negative in a sentence and not considered to cancel each other out... but I don't think that sense applies to any of your example sentences anyway.

Edittorrent said...

If "nothing" isn't a negative, I don't know what is. :) "Not/No thing." I'm not sure why "not critical" is like "an idiot," which isn't a negation? Iago would certainly NEVER call himself that. :)

Usually, I think double negatives are in fact a way to emphasize the "no" as you say-- "We don't need no stinkin' badges!" That's colloquial, and doesn't need a lot of translation.

That's why I focused on the "lelote," the double negative that is supposed to mean positive. THOSE are the sentences that need translation. And these are indeed the sorts of sentences I see all the time in work that needs editing. The important thing is, of course, to distinguish, as I suggested, between the sentences that are better just straight, and the sentences that are deliberately a bit opaque.

Most writers-- again, only in my experience, and yours might vary-- need to be more "critical," to use Iago's term, of their sentence construction. There is nothing wrong with writing as we're thinking something out, but we still should go back and make sure that it is a finished product, and not just a work-in-process. Can the reader get the right meaning?

Stella Omega said...

The point is not that the decline in income has not been arrested.

You parsed the meaning of this one wrong; it doesn't say that the decline in income has been arrested, it says that there is some other point being made. (which is probably a prevarication and about to be disputed, but there you go)

Edittorrent said...

Stella, really? Okay. More evidence that sentences can get too complicated for readers to understand. :)
I see what you mean. I think the writer ought to just come out and say, "The point is...."

Alicia who is too simple

Edittorrent said...

Poor Iago. To be so self-aware in such a way. Kaitlyn, your switched sentence may be readable, but it has an entirely different meaning, and the subtext is lost.

Anyway, I think the larger point is something we say over and over and over -- it's all about authorial control. Tangling a sentence in nots can really undermine that control. (HA HA I MADE A PUN.)


Eva Gale said...

You forgot double negatives in dialog? I love them. So telling. Are they a characterization no go?

Stella Omega said...

I see what you mean. I think the writer ought to just come out and say, "The point is...."

I figure that's dialogue, and some politician is trying to get out of the town hall meeting with his gonads intact, while the locals are chanting; "What have you done for us lately?"

Funny how a single sentence can paint an entire scene in one's head!

Iago, one of my all-time favorite villians! And his self-awareness is exactly what I love. Thank you reminding me of that. I now need to write a bitter, jaded, self-deprecatory bad dude.

Edittorrent said...

Eva, dialogue is dialogue. It sounds like the character. If the character says, "There ain't no way," that's what you should put. Dialogue isn't the issue here.

But whatever you write should mean what you want it to mean. Just pointing out one opportunity for simplifying to achieve greater meaning-- and that will highlight when the double negative itself adds meaning.

Okay, Stella, now you have to do "The Redemption of Iago!"