Negative Guilt Syndrome
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.
Double Negatives To Avoid
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