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Use positive language

We’re accustomed to thinking and speaking positively. When we write in the negative, we place another stumbling block in audience’s way and make it more difficult for them to understand us. When you’re going to meet a friend at the airport, do you say, “If you fail to arrive by 5:00, I cannot pick you up,” or do you say, “You have to arrive by 5:00 if you want me to pick you up?”

Avoid double negatives

When you write a sentence containing two negatives, they cancel each other out. Your sentence sounds negative, but is actually positive. As Rudolph Flesch (1979) says, these sentences require “a mental switch from no to yes.”

Don’t say Say
No approval of any noise compatibility program, or any portion of a program, may be implied in the absence of the agency’s express approval. You must get the agency’s express approval for any noise compatibility program or any portion of a program.

Here are some expressions that signal double negatives.

Don’t say Say
no fewer than … at least
has not yet attained is under
may not … until may only … when
is not … unless is … only if

Many ordinary words have a negative meaning, such as unless, fail to, notwithstanding, except, other than, unlawful, disallowed, terminate, void, insufficient, and so on. Watch out for them when they appear after not. Find a positive word to express your meaning.

Don’t say Say
An application for a grant does not become void unless the applicant’s failure to provide requested information is unreasonable under the circumstances. An application for a grant remains active if the applicant provides the information we request within a reasonable time.

Avoid exceptions to exceptions

An exception that contains an exception is just another form of a double negative. That makes it even harder for the user to puzzle out. Rewrite the sentence to emphasize the positive.

Don’t say Say
Applicants may be granted a permit to prospect for geothermal resources on any federal lands except lands in the National Park System, unless the applicant holds valid existing rights to the geothermal resources on the National Park System lands listed in the application. You may be granted a permit to prospect for geothermal resources on any federal lands. This includes lands in the National Park System only if you hold valid existing rights to the park lands listed in your application.

Sources

  • Charrow, Veda R., Erhardt, Myra K. and Charrow, Robert P., Clear & Effective Legal Writing_, 4th edition, 2007, Aspen Publishers, New York, NY, pp. 178-180.
  • Flesch, Rudolf, How to Write in Plain English, A Book for Lawyers and Consumers, 1979, Harper and Rowe, New York, p. 95.
  • Garner, Bryan A., Guidelines for Drafting and Editing Court Rules, 1996, Administrative Office of the US Courts, Washington, DC, pp. 30-31.
  • Wydick, Richard, Plain English for Lawyers_, 5th edition, 2005, Carolina Academic Press, Durham, NC, pp. 75-76.