Clear Technical Writing
Special Topics

Negative Expressions

Single negative

Using the word not can provide emphasis to a verb, adjective, or adverb.

We did not include comments.

Not many users complained.

It is not often a problem.

However, alternative wording can often make the reading easier.

We omitted comments.

Few users complained.

It is rarely a problem.

Double negative

It's okay to use a double negative when you want to emphasize something.

No, I did not say that.

But it's risky to use two negatives to cancel each other out into a positive.

I am not unaware of the facts.

It's risky because the reader temporarily loses focus to mentally recognize and decode the double negative. It's also risky because the reader's current mood can lead to misinterpretations about your tone. A reader in a good mood might think, "What a clever way to write that!" A reader in a foul mood might think, "What a jerk, talking down to me."

In most technical writing, we should avoid purposeful double negatives.

I am aware of the facts.

Triple negative

Words with "negative" meanings include no, not, and neither .. nor. They also include a conjunction (unless), some prepositions (except, without) and many verbs (deny, fail, prevent, reject).

If you want your writing to be clear, avoid using three or more in a sentence.

Access will not be denied unless participants have failed to deliver applications without any mistakes.

There is seldom a single correct rewrite. Good editing takes time and effort, and skill developed with that time and effort. But the first step is recognizing the overuse of such negatives.

Edit your writing by underlining negative expressions.

He did not remember the plan. But we were not unkind about it. Without needing approval, he may reject delivery contracts that do not include weekdays, except Friday.

Lesson: Negative Expressions
Module: Special Topics
Course: Clear Technical Writing