December 3, 2011 by bradcharlesbeals
Several posts ago, I dealt with the passive voice, its problems, its uses. One of the reasons that passive-voice construction (The ball was thrown by me, as opposed to the active I threw the ball) is a hindrance to clarity is that it requires an extra cognitive step to get to the meaning. It asks the synapses to fire a few more times than would be necessary with the active voice.
But there are other language habits that do the same thing. Using a negative to indicate its positive opposite, for example. Take this sentence: “Don’t be short.” It’s a caddie talking to his player. Now, this may be good advice. The caddie may know this particular spot on this green and understand that, given the grain, grass type, and the nearby water, there’s a tendency for golfers leave it short. He might very well know exactly what he’s talking about, but he may also be putting his job at risk.
Just like with the passive voice, an imperative framed in the negative, like our caddie’s piece of advice, requires an additional cognitive step. The golfer must first understand what the statement means in the negative and then translate it into the positive opposite. Compare these two cognitive sequences:
A. With “Don’t be short”, the golfer’s brain would do something like this:
short means the ball stops before the hole
don’t means this is bad and the opposite is good
the opposite of short is long
therefore, I should try to hit it just past the hole
B. With “You can be long” the brain only needs to do this:
1. long means past the hole
2. therefore, I should try to leave it just past the hole.
If it sounds like I’m making an issue out of nothing, like I’m inventing for blog material, just hang on. Yes, the brain works so fast that we don’t perceive a difference between “don’t leave it short” and “you can be long.” It’s not as if the golfer now says,”Darn you, caddie! Now I’ve had to unnecessarily expend mental energy transposing your negative imperative into the positive. Two extra cognitive steps! You’re fired!” But something else is going on, something very important to both golfers and anyone trying to compel or persuade with words.
When the caddie says “don’t be short”, the player will visualize short—he can’t help it; it’s a language/brain thing. Here, I’ll illustrate: don’t think of green grass.
See? Your brain can’t help it. Just like our golfer can’t help but see short.
Now he needs to re-visualize the opposite of short since the caddie said “don’t”. Once again, it’s not the extra cognitive steps that irk the golfer, it’s that first image in his head of hitting the ball short. The golfer now has to superimpose with added effort the opposite image of hitting the ball past the cup. And in high-pressure situations, that can be next to impossible. The caddie has just spoiled his employer’s sports psyche by introducing negative thinking. And he may also have just spoiled his own livelihood.
This will be very useful—you’re thinking—when I become a professional caddie, but how does this affect me now as a writer?
The implications for us as writers are the same as the consequences were for the caddie. Your readers, your players, will visualize what you put before them. So, when it’s possible and appropriate, when it doesn’t jeopardize the overall purpose of the copy, when it doesn’t handcuff you into veering away from clearest meaning, frame your imperatives in the positive.
Here’s an easy way to make a determination as to whether you should avoid a not: Ask yourself this: when casting words in the negative, are you ok with your reader having in mind (and holding it, we have to presume) the opposite of what you’re saying. Is it ok for your player to visualize short when you want him hitting it long? If not, present it in the positive. If it doesn’t hurt, don’t sweat it.
And you can always use these same principles in reverse. Reverse psychology, that is. Don’t open this box. Don’t ring this bell. And whatever you do, DON’T read my next blog.