Avoid Misnegations

Here is a word you won’t find in a dictionary, but it is real, and it is being used: misnegation. Basically, it means to make too many negations in the same sentence.

Rapidsoft Press misnegations litotes
Here is a real example of a misnegation. A hospital waste bin, designed to be operated only with a foot pedal, displayed this warning sign: “The lid must not be hand operated and pushed past the point where it will not automatically return to the closed position.” The second “not” is the offender and should have been left out of the sentence.

Here is a startling example, taken from a newspaper article, which stated that the Supreme Court “said if there is no reason to disbelieve that the accused cannot be reformed or rehabilitated, a sentence of death would be erroneous.” Here we have a triple misnegation, with a total of four negatives: no reason, disbelieve, cannot be, and erroneous. As written, the sentence means the exact opposite of what was intended. The mind recoils in abject horror from such linguistic torture!

Interestingly, we can easily fix this sentence simply by changing the no to a, stripping the dis from disbelieve, and dropping the not from cannot.* The result is that the Supreme Court “said if there is a reason to believe that the accused can be reformed or rehabilitated, a sentence of death would be erroneous.” That newspaper needs a good copy editor—badly.

Misnegations are, however, not to be confused with litotes, such as “he’s not a bad singer,” or “I don’t feel too bad.” Litotes (plural: litotes) is in the dictionary and dates to 1589. There is a litotes in my review of Killing Patton, in the third sentence, which begins with “This is not faint praise, . . .” (see Book Reviews)

* Thanks and a tip of the Thayer hat to Hal of New Montage Media for this neat, clean solution to the sentence.