Sunday, May 22, 2011

The delicate art of making affirmative assertions around negative messages

Last week, I posted here an essay of mine that discussed how the English language deals with the often disagreeable business of negating things. I observed that to attenuate the pain and discomfort of being refused, rebutted, contradicted, denied, denigrated, or lied upon, the language has developed a wide repertory of grammatical and semantic devices for negating without overtly saying a blanket “no,” “not,” or “never.”

This time, in “Excessive Negation and Its Dangers,” a companion essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times and that now also forms part of my book Give Your English the Winning Edge, I explore the psychological and practical reasons why the language has come up with so many ways of expressing negation positively. The bottom line is that blunt or excessive negation is a major stumbling block to communication, so those who are keen on getting their ideas across or getting things done need to cultivate the art of using the barest minimum of “no,” “not,”  and “never” in their written and spoken English. (May 22, 2011)

Excessive Negation and Its Dangers

We previously explored the various ways of negating a thought or idea. We saw that “no,” “not,” “never,” and the rest of their negative cohort efficiently demolish every declarative or affirmative statement in the English language. We also took a cursory look at affixal negation, or the use of the negative affixes “un-”, “im-”/ “in-”/ “il-”, “dis-”, “de-”, and “-less” to reverse the sense of certain words. Then we ended with the warning that too much negation, being subversive of the natural sense and order of things, could get in the way of good communication.

Before going deeply into the pitfalls of excessive negation, though, let us first recognize its obviously useful aspects. Nobody can argue, of course, against alarmist phrasing to emphasize clear and imminent danger: “Caution! Don’t touch! High voltage!” “Danger! Don’t enter! Highly radioactive area!” We can also forgive lawyers or word-weasels for crafting such bullying statements as these: “All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without prior written permission of the author.” “No trespassing! Private property! Entry without authorization will subject intruders to criminal prosecution.”

Negative communication of this kind may have short-term shock appeal, but too much of it can be so irritating as to invite open resistance and hostility. In fact, psychological research has conclusively demonstrated that repeated negative messages foster doubt, mistrust, and discouragement in the receiver, making further communication with him or her increasingly difficult. This is why since the beginnings of language, people who needed other people’s cooperation would make every effort to find a more graceful—and fruitful— tact for expressing negation. Call it affirmative communication or diplomacy or public relations, but what it basically does is to use positive phrasing even for intrinsically negative messages.

The virtue of emphasizing the positive rather than the negative is easy to see. Compare the messages in these statement-pairs: “Don’t you dare do that!” (“Why not try doing this?”) “I don’t think you know what you’re doing.” (“Are you sure you are doing the right thing?”) “You cannot be relied upon to do anything properly!” (I wish I could rely more on you to do things properly.”) “If you fail our written test, you will not get hired by our company.” (“You must pass our written test to get hired by our company.”) Emphasizing the negative heightens the expectation of failing to get the desired result; emphasizing the positive heightens the expectation of succeeding in getting it. One need not be a behavioral expert to predict which approach is more likely to be the ticket for success.

We can see now that negation in language is no small thing; it is too major a thing to trifle with by inserting a “no” or “not” all too casually into a positive statement. In our writing as in our face-to-face interaction with people, excessive negation could create serious barriers to communication. Indeed, it’s no accident that the English language has evolved so many ways of expressing negation positively. The wealth of words in the language for affixal negation is, in fact, proof that over the centuries, users of the language had gone to great semantic lengths to avoid using an outright “no” or “not” when expressing negation. Thus were born thousands of new words with the negative aspect already built into them, making it so easy for us today to build positive, affirmative statements around negative messages.

Consider these statements that use “no” or “not,” and contrast them with their equivalents using affixal negation or, better yet, deliberately positive semantics: “Have I not told you that it’s not necessary for you to make that trip?” (“I said that trip might be unnecessary.”) “Even if your data are generally favorable, they are not yet sufficient, so you could not yet conclude that your theory is valid.” (“The data to support your theory is still inconclusive.”) “We cannot admit anybody to this club unless he is suitably recommended by a member.” (“We will be happy to admit to this club anyone suitably recommended by a member.”)

Lest we leave the subject of negation thinking that “no” and “not” are totally undesirable, we must now give due recognition to their supremely positive semantic virtue: their power to delicately flavor understatement, irony, euphemism, and other nonliteral forms of expression. Feel the pleasant undertow of this negative statement: “He’s not exactly a saint.” Much better than the positive, straightforward “He’s a sinner,” don’t you think? And take a look at this negative euphemism: “Mr. and Mrs. Smith do not access e-mail.” Isn’t it an exquisitely sociable way of saying that “Mr. and Mrs. Smith are incapable of using the Internet,” or, even more galling, that “Mr. and Mrs. Smith are Internet-illiterate”?

Be that as it may, by using the barest minimum of “no” and “not” in our prose, we definitely can make ourselves much more effective and pleasant communicators in the English language.
From the book Give Your English the Winning Edge by Jose A. Carillo © 2009 by the author, © 2010 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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