The Queen’s English – I Said That…Maybe

lan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, was quoted regarding the Consumer Price Index, “I can’t say with great confidence, but I can say that what data we have does not suggest that the July rise will not be repeated in the month of August.”

Try threading your way through that one!

What Mr. Greenspan was trying to say (I think) is that the August results may be the same as those in July, but that he is not exactly certain.

The sentence is a delightful illustration of the problem which can be caused by negative ambiguity.  By expressing a double or sometimes even a triple negative, the true meaning of a sentence can be obscured.

Another financial wizard has said in an interview, “If the economy does not flow in the next quarter as I expect . . . ” when he was interrupted by a perceptive interviewer who said, “Do you expect it to flow or not?”  A perfect question to illustrate the ambiguity.  If the speaker were pessimistic about the “flow,” he should have said, “If, as I expect, the economy does not flow in the next quarter . . . .”  On the other hand, if optimistic, he might have said, “I expect the economy to flow in the next quarter, but if it doesn’t . . . .”  It is just possible that the wizard created the ambiguity intentionally, so that three months later he might claim to have been prescient by adopting the meaning which matched actual performance.

By using a string of negative expressions, you can interrupt the stream of your thought by requiring the listener to stop to analyze each phrase or clause; and at worst you can create the confusion that accompanies ambiguity.  No one, but politicians and economists, have that as a goal.

Consider the following newspaper quotes:

“Florida is not spending less on children’s health insurance because there aren’t as many children who lack health insurance.”  (Question: Is Florida spending less because there are fewer children who are uninsured, or is the state not spending less for some other reason than the fact that there are fewer uninsured?  There is no way to know from the sentence as written.)

“Many people who start businesses don’t take big risks because they don’t have a lot of risk when they get started.”  (Question: Do people starting businesses not take risks because there is little risk in starting, or is it so that they do take risks irrespective of the fact that they take little risk in starting?)

In creating a sentence, be aware of stacked negatives and misplaced phrases and clauses (generally speaking they should be nestled up against the words being modified).  We often race through a thought in substance, neglecting the effect of the form of the sentence; always upon completion, try to clear your mind and reread your prose as though you are seeing it for the first time.  My college English professor made an indelible first impression upon me, a quaking freshman, when he said that the true test of a composition is in taking it out on the street, stopping the first person encountered, and having him or her understand clearly what is written.  In most cases simple and direct are preferred to complex, convoluted structures
A related anecdote: In a seminar at Princeton among linguists, it is reported that a speaker stated that in some languages a double negative implies a positive thought, while in other languages a double negative implies a negative thought; however, he said he has found that in no language does a double positivePosted in Queen’s English / Latin Lovers  |  Leave a comment

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