We all know that the obvious double negatives (e.g., not + nobody, no one, never, etc.) are grammatically incorrect. You might be surprised, however, by how we often inadvertently use other types of multiple negative words in a sentence. Doing so truly confuses everyone and makes readers work harder to grasp your message. For example, let’s look at the sentences below:
× It’s not that we’re ungrateful for all that you’ve done for us. It’s just that without additional funds, and unless we have no fewer than five people to work on this project, it might be impossible for us to meet the deadline.
Did you figure out what those two sentences mean? If you did, bravo! We certainly wouldn’t have had the patience. Imagine reading these types of phrases constantly. Worse yet, picture reading discussions about technical topics while deciphering unnecessary negative terminology. “Ugh,” is right!
The paragraph above would be clearer if written in the positive as follows:
√ We’re thankful for all that you’ve done for us, but we would need at least five people and additional funds to meet the deadline.
Better, right? As you can see, multiple negatives create confusion and often cancel each other, so why not simply state the phrase in the positive? Your sentences would be clearer and shorter. With that said, you may occasionally use double negatives to emphasize a point; however, you should do so sparingly.
Minimize Negative Words for Clearer Writing
To help you clarify your sentences, the following are a few tips on how to avoid multiple negatives.
1. Avoid phrases that use no/not, particularly when referring to quantity.
Change the negative phrase into a positive one.
- No fewer than → at least
- No more than → at most
2. Avoid no/not + negative adverbs such as hardly and scarcely.
The main problem with combining no/not with negative adverbs is that the double negatives cancel each other out, leaving you with a positive meaning when you most likely intended a negative one.
Delete the no/not or delete the negative adverb to preserve the intended negative meaning.
- Situation 1
- not hardly → hardly [e.g., "I can't hardly wait" → "I can't wait" or "I can hardly wait."]
- not scarcely → scarcely
- not only (except when using “not only…but also” construction) → only
- Situation 2
- scarcely…no/not → scarcely [e.g. "I scarcely had no time to..." → "I scarcely had time to..." or "I had no time to"]
- hardly… no/not → hardly
3. Avoid no/not + words with negative prefixes such as un-, mis-, in-, and non-.
Use an antonym.
- No misunderstanding → understanding
- Not illegal → legal
- Not unnecessary → necessary
- [NB: The not + un- construction can be used for emphasis. It can also add a layer of meaning that would be lost if changed to the positive form. For example, "The girl has many ideas that seem radical but not unintelligent," suggests that the girl's ideas are too strange or extreme to be considered intelligent by normal standards. Still, her ideas are thoughtful.]
4. Avoid no/not with other words that have a negative meaning (e.g., absence, without, fail, terminate, void).
Sometimes correcting this mistake will require a complete revision.
- No additional work is needed in the absence of an emergency. → Additional work is only required in an emergency.
- If you fail to respond by tomorrow, we cannot continue the project. → We will continue the project only if you respond by tomorrow.
5. Avoid no/not + until.
Generally replaceable with only.
- No research has been conducted on Jupiter’s atmospheric composition until recently. → Research on Jupiter’s atmospheric composition only began recently.
6. Avoid no/not + unless.
Generally replaceable with only + if.
- I will not go to the market unless I have to. → I will only go to the market if necessary.
7. Watch out for creating exceptions within an exception (e.g., except + unless).
Revisions might require separating into multiple sentences.
- For your college admissions essay, you can write about anything except potentially offensive topics unless you focus on how you overcame an obstacle. → For your college admissions essay, you can write about anything. If you choose to write about a potentially offensive topic, focus solely on how you overcame the obstacle.
8. Avoid not + but for.
Generally, replace with only.
- I am not crazy about the movie but for its aesthetic elements. → I only like the movie’s aesthetic elements.
We know it’s hard to remember all these rules while writing, so we hope that this short list will be your cheat sheet for catching sentences that may confuse your readers! For additional information about other ways to clarify your writing, check out our resources here.