How negatives might limit your vocabulary

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“It wasn’t wonderful,” I said, referring to some bad experience.

The German I was talking to howled with laughter.

“Such British humour. Ha, ha, ha, ha.”

I suppose we Brits do use negatives a lot. Sometimes it’s a humorous response to a difficult situation. Other times it’s politeness or an attempt to avoid being dramatic.

“I’m not pleased about this. It wasn’t the best thing you could’ve done. This isn’t a great start to the day.”

Speaking in positives can sound aggressive to British ears.

“I’m angry about this. It was the worst thing you could’ve done. It was a terrible start to the day.”

I like negatives because they soften everyday social interactions. But in writing, negative structures are a problem because they often limit descriptive vocabulary.

Not safe = risky, dangerous, perilous, hair raising

Every statement in this restaurant review is a negative.

The negative negative restaurant review
The restaurant isn’t in a nice part of town and its building doesn’t look nice either. There’s not enough lighting outside the entrance. The staff aren’t well trained. The seating isn’t comfortable. I couldn’t easily read the menus as the font wasn’t big enough.

Look how writing in positives improves the review. The vocabulary choices are more adventurous: “rundown, dingy, badly lit.” The experience is directly described. Finally we know exactly what’s wrong with the building and the area.

The positive negative restaurant review
The restaurant is in a rundown part of town and its building looks dingy. The restaurant entrance is badly lit. The staff need more training. The seating is uncomfortable. Reading the menus was difficult because the font was too small.

If you cooked me a meal and I said “it wasn’t nice,” you’d be right to find me annoying. Why wasn’t the meal nice?

I could reply with a positive structure. “The meal was bad.” But I’d know this gives you no information so I’d have to be specific. “The pasta was too salty and the peas were cold.”

My advice to writers is, avoid writing in negatives unless it’s necessary. Make full use of words that directly describe negative things.

The cat wasn’t pretty. = The cat was hideous. The cat was ugly. The cat was homely and plain. The cat was ordinary to look at.

Writing in positives encourages us to give readers more specific information. And that increases the communication value of our work.

Have a great day!

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