Double negatives and confusing statements
We’ve all heard people issue sentences like, “Alice is not eating nothing.” What is meant by that? My bet is the speaker is intending to convey the message that Alice is starving herself. But what do the words actually mean? Well, if she eats nothing, it means no food passes her lips. So, if she’s not eating nothing, she’s eating something. The double negative is working against the intended meaning.
On the other hand, consider the sentence, “She is not unbeautiful.” Meaning she is beautiful. Some say this is stronger than saying the straightforward, “She is beautiful.” I’m not so sure.
I think avoiding double negatives is a worthy general goal.
What prompted me to hit the keys on this subject was a confusing story in my local paper about an airline passenger who demonstrated the maturity of so many these days by jumping on the wing of the plane. A spokesman for the airline said that he “cannot say without certainty that something like this has not happened before.”
What? Looks like three negatives are present.
I think what he’s saying is, “I’m not sure whether this happened before or not.” Wouldn’t that be so much easier and clearer? Heck, just putting those words he uttered in the way they were must have been a gargantuan task. Or a completely random one.
The “at about” syndrome
A report in my local paper included “…after a 911 call was received at about 7:30…” This was hardly unique. Such a phrase appears often in newspaper accounts and novels. Sometimes the wording is “at around” instead of “at about.” We all know what it means: the 911 call occurred in the neighborhood of 7:30. My eighth-grade teacher would have given the reporter a poor mark and I agree. Something either happened at 7:30 or it happened about or around 7:30. If it happened at 7:30, then, at that time, all accurate digital clocks would say 7:30 and the seconds would be 00 and even if billionths of a second were registered it would be 0 of them. If the call happened around 7:30 it might have occurred, say, somewhere between ten minutes before 7:30 and ten after.
As a mathematician, I’m forced to note that the probability of it happening at 7:30 is zero, but that’s a discussion for another day. For practical purposes it’s reasonable to assume at 7:30 means within a few minutes of 7:30.
So at around 7:30 means the same thing as around 7:30. The at is redundant. Why not just say around 7:30 or about 7:30 instead?
The “only” problem
Again I suffer from the efforts of that same teacher. The word “only” can describe a situation precisely or it can lead to a complete misinterpretation of a sentence.
Consider the sentence, “I only like coffee ice cream.” Now that’s perfectly okay if you mean you like coffee ice cream but you don’t love it. But if you’re trying to indicate that the only kind of ice cream you like is coffee ice cream, then you are better served to say, “I like only coffee ice cream.”
I’ve found that, when using the word “only,” it’s wise to put it directly before what it is referring to.
If I said,“different than,” that same demanding teacher would have shuddered. She really did a number on me, didn’t she? She taught us never to say, “different than.” So what’s the alternative? Different from. But it’s not hard to find print reporters, TV journalists, and your friends quite willing to shock my teacher. I did a little reading online. English Grammar for Dummies, probably not the most reliable source, says, “Different than is never correct.” But many who are among the smartest people in the world use it. The consensus seems to be that employing “different than” is unwise but is not a major offense. Except to me.
You probably agree all these gripes are petty. After all, we seem able to interpret the real meaning even though the wording is imprecise. I dislike almost everything William Buckley said and stood for when he was a major voice for conservative thought. However, he was a master wordsmith and took a lot of mocking for his careful use of words and wordings. In this one area I liked his response when asked about his unambiguous employment of the English language. He responded with his own question, “Why shouldn’t people use words and phrasing that are as precise as possible?”
Now I fear I’ve opened a can of worms, so please feel free to criticize me whenever I violate the thoughts presented here.