Negative Guilt Syndrome

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A reader expresses second thoughts about a sentence she wrote:

When I looked back at it, I realized this use of a double negative to convey a positive is an unusual construction and remembered the dire warnings received in my youth to, “never use a double negative.”

The reader is referring to this sentence: “You cannot fail to appreciate his intelligence.”

The sentence is negative, but it does not contain a double negative.

A problem with internalizing the rule “never use a double negative” is that it tends to make speakers leery of negatives in general. This reader has assumed that by using “a negative to convey a positive” she has committed some kind of error. She hasn’t.

The expression “You cannot fail to (do something)” is a common idiom:

Applaud the author’s politics or not, you cannot fail to appreciate his literary talent.—Book review in Newsday

Anyone with a love of the great outdoors and a good walk cannot fail to appreciate Dartmoor.—Travel piece, London Times

Practitioners cannot fail to appreciate the frequency of hyperuricemia in many of their patients because, even in asymptomatic patients, it is regularly brought to their attention in the various profiles of biochemical tests.—Scientific paper, University of Queensland.

The negative “cannot fail to” is a softer way of saying, “you must” or “you have to.” A common reaction of English speakers to being told that we must do something is “Oh yeah? Who’s going to make me?” Using the phrase “cannot fail to” instead of “you must” is a way to avoid provoking a hostile reaction in the reader.

A “double negative” results from the presence of more than one negative modifier in the same clause. For example, “I can’t get no satisfaction” is a double negative because it contains not and no.

“You cannot fail to appreciate his intelligence” is simply a negative sentence, like “I can’t lose.”

As for the ““never use a double negative” rule, even it has its exceptions. But that’s another post.

Related post:
Double Negatives To Avoid

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7 thoughts on “Negative Guilt Syndrome”

  1. Teacher explained to the class that in some languages a double negative is a positive and in others a double negitive is still a negative but in no language is a double positive a negative. A student muttered, ‘Yeah, right.’

  2. You are right, it is not a double negative.

    However, it is a bad construction. It took me a few minutes thought to consider the implications for the reader. I have come across it in the past. It does LOOK like a double negative. Therefore the reader questions the writers motive as a first response. Then, after due consideration, recognise it is not a problem. However, by the time that consideration has been made the flow of the reading is lost.

    The most successful writing is achieved by making the reader think about the point of the paragraph. It is a writers sin to use idioms or constructions that cause the reader to trip over something that is not the point of the paragraph. It distracts from the real point.

    You make a powerful point about softening. The sentence “You cannot fail to appreciate his intelligence,” may need to be softer than “You should appreciate his intelligence.” However, there must be better ways to do it than distracting a reader. I fancy this, “Surely, an intelligence to appreciate”.

    This latter construction appeals to the readers intellect, yet expresses the writers confidence in the assertion. At the same time the intention is clear without idiomatic confusion.

  3. Hello, Maeve! Does your intriguing last sentence imply a post in the following days? It would be much appreciated!

  4. @venqax LOL. However, as an aside, “litotes” needs to come down off its high horse and be pronounced as it looks “lih-TOHTZ.” LOL

  5. I believe that the author thought that she had used a double negative because she used the word fail right after cannot. Fail is a negative word, and so is cannot, but it is definitely not a double negative.

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