Susannah’s blog

Beware a tangle of negatives

I came across this notice on a client’s web hosting site:

You have no renewals due that are not set to auto renew

Did you understand it straightaway? I had to think hard, but at least I was prepared for something like it because I was checking to see when the client’s web services were due to be renewed.

If it had said:

All your renewals due are set to auto renew

wouldn’t it have been easier to take in?

The problem arises when people are so wrapped up in the way their business works that they forget how to communicate with people outside. Web hosting companies are focused on procedures for renewing clients’ subscriptions and this one ended up in a tangle with two negatives in one sentence.

Avoid negatives. I’m not saying you should call something good when it’s bad. I mean avoid negative constructions.

Here are some examples:
Examples of positive phrases to replace negatives
In the first example, when you say “Don’t use”, the reader has to conjure up two ideas in quick succession: first what “use” means, then what its opposite is. If you say “avoid” they have only one idea to grasp. When you say “Don’t”, you also focus attention on what you don’t want them to do, rather than what you do.

The last example, “Do not proceed without …”, is especially relevant for web writers because so much of what we write is in the form of instructions. We are trying to make it easy for people to use our websites to get what they want.

Every “not” puts a strain on the reader and often ties the writer in knots (no pun intended).

I’ve heard several people say things like this on the radio:

We cannot underestimate the importance of this

when I think they meant exactly the opposite.

So be kind to your readers – and help yourselves to be clear and avoid ambiguity – by finding positive ways of saying what you mean.

By the way, if ever you’re tempted to say “Don’t miss” when you’re promoting your service, have a look at this research by Persado digital marketers.

Avoiding negatives is one of the topics I cover in my book Writing for the Web. You can buy it here.

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