The Power of a Negative Word by J. D. Peterson

In my reading and writing I have found that the English language favors the use of negative words to add impact to a statement. Idioms, phrases, and figures of speech also favor the negative form for emphasis.

Let me explain.
It’s morning, and you’re on your way out the door, and your partner say’s, “Don’t forget your lunch.” Why don’t we say, “REMEMBER your lunch,” instead?

You had a meeting with a person of authority, like a police officer or a judge. Your friend asks if you were nervous and you respond; “I wasn’t afraid.” Instead of saying, “I was very brave, and all went well,” WHY does our language default to a negative response?

It appears that there is emphasis added by the use of a negative word. For example, when achieving success in some endeavor, we say, “I could NOT have been happier.”  Instead of a simple, positive remark, “I am so happy!” Just saying, “we’re happy” doesn’t create as powerful a statement as we get by adding a negative for emphasis. This subtlety is woven so intricately into our language that we don’t even notice it.

But why is emphasis landed squarely on the use of a negative word?

How happy are you?

“I’m so happy, I can’t stand it.”
“I’m so happy, I could just die!”
“Just slay me, I’m so happy.”

Really? No wonder the English language is confusing to folks whose native language is not English. And again, that doesn’t even begin to address the use of idioms.

Occasionally when reading a novel I run across a sentence that has so many negative words being used to reinforce a positive statement, that I get confused. It becomes necessary for me to pause, and dissect the sentence in order to determine if it is a positive or a negative statement. Jeepers. (I’ve searched for an example, but one alludes me at the present moment.)

Did you know that hypnotists, when writing a script for a client, are very careful not to use ‘negative’ words like no, not, can’t, don’t, won’t etc. ('Never' is acceptable because it is a time period. Forever, ever, today etc.) Hypnotists claim that the human brain does not process negative words and will cancel them out, which is why when they write a script for a person they will always use the positive form of a sentence or phrase.

Example: A client comes for a session to quit smoking. The hypnotist will never give the suggestion; “You don’t want to smoke cigarettes.” According to the brain experts what the client hears is; “You don’t want to smoke cigarettes.” In essence, reinforcing the very thing the client wants to avoid.

If this is true, then why do we communicate with each other using so many negative words to emphasize our feelings?

If we keep yelling at our children; “Don’t throw that ball inside,” and they’re not obeying our command, could it be because they are actually hearing, “Don’t throw that ball inside.”  Would we do better to say; “Take that ball outside on the lawn.”

What do you think? As a writer, I’ve been pondering this simple observation.

How could I not?


Susan Price said…
It's an interesting theory... but when I think back to the times when I disobeyed my parents, it wasn't because I didn't hear the negative.

I heard them say DO NOT quite plainly. I knew exactly why they didn't want to do whatever it was. I understood what the consequences would be if I was caught. (A shouting at and, possibly, a thraiping.)

I disobeyed because I wanted to and I calculated that they either wouldn't find out or wouldn't know it was me.

I can see how the positive statement might work better with hypnotism, that the half-dreaming mind would respond better to, "You want to be free of smoking," than, "Do not smoke." But I'm not convinced about it in other circumstances.

What do others think?
janedwards said…
I agree with you Susan. When I disobeyed my parents it was always in the full knowledge. I may well try to weasel my way out if caught but I went against the rules because I reasoned that it was worth the risk.

Just as wearing my parent hat I'd know that if I told my kids 'Do not throw that ball indoors' I would know full well that if they carried on it was an act of deliberate defiance.

Positive statements have their place but not all the time. But the nuances of inventive phrasing tell you a great deal about the speaker; their background and character and intentions. In the same way, by useing those differences in speech patterns, a writer gives their characters a different voice. Just a thought.
AliB said…
I agree with the childhood observations of Susan and Jane. I was never in doubt about the donts! But the hypnotherapy example (my sis-in-law is also a practitioner) also makes sense and I have another kind of example. As a golfer (!) it's a well-known fact that self-talk of a negative kind (don't go in that lake/bunker/bush) nearly always ends in disaster while something like 'focus o n the fairway' - and visualising same - is a lot more successful. Sports psychology or cod psychology? No idea! As to written language, I think it something we need to watch out fo. Negative constructions we take for granted in speech can be clumsy written down.
Makes you think!
Susan Price said…
Oh certainly, it's a useful reminder to avoid too many complicated negatives!

Popular posts

What's the Big Idea? - Nick Green

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

Meet Author Virginia Watts, a Finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award, and Find Out How She Does What She Does

I Wish I May, I wish I Might... Understand What These Writers Are Saying says Griselda Heppel

Misogyny and Bengali Children’s Poetry by Dipika Mukherjee