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    Double Jeopardy

    Monday, April 15, 2013

    Edgar Degas - Madame Jeantaud in the mirror (1875)

    As you may know, in formal English it is improper to use two negative words together to emphasize a point—as in, “I didn’t never say that.” Logic argues that two negatives cancel each other to make a positive, in this case meaning, “At some point in time I said that.”

    There are occasions, however, when doubled negatives do suit a purpose, even in formal English. That is, when you intentionally want to negate a negative to create a positive. Here’s an example:

    She couldn’t not notice that he was barefoot beneath his business suit.

    This sentence implies that she tried to be polite and ignore his bare feet, but they were too obvious. Granted, this is a somewhat clumsy sentence, perhaps better written as “She couldn’t avoid noticing…” or “She could hardly help but notice…” 

    A perhaps more legitimate example comes in this sentence:

    The lecture on global financial trends turned out to be not uninteresting.

    This suggests that the writer expected the talk to be less than interesting and was surprised. Or the sentence could be intended as a modest statement of praise.

    Of course, neither the “barefoot” example above nor this “lecture” example belong in good business writing. Neither is concise or clear.

    But they do illustrate that writing correctly is more than just a matter of memorizing grammar rules. Communication is a dynamic, living thing. Just as human beings are dynamic, living creatures. That's something worth reflecting on.

    —Joyce Lee