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.”
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.|
- 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.