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A triple negative

July 12, 2018

I was reading the review of Olivia Laing’s novel Crudo in the Literary Review section of this week’s Private Eye when I was brought up short by the following sentence:

“Not, of course, that Crudo isn’t without its incidental amusements”.

I kept going back to it and re-reading it, trying to work out what the writer wanted to say. So Crudo has incidental amusements – because it is not without them? No, but it says not that it’s not without them. So it’s without them? The problem is that there are three negatives here – not, without and isn’t – so, cancelling out, we end up with a negative again. Yet that seems to be the opposite of what the writer intended.

It’s usually better not to multiply negatives unnecessarily. Even when the meaning is clear it tends to sound prissy and over-elaborate. George Orwell was a stern opponent of the not un- formulation (eg not unjustifiable instead of justifiable) and wrote that one could cure oneself of an addiction to it by memorising the sentence “A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field”.

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  1. Mark Brafield permalink

    I think this is (sort of) connected, at least in the sense of multiplying words unnecessarily.

    When I was in the third form at Bancrofts, our English teacher was Robin Curtis (a brilliant and inspiring teacher who I remember to this day with great affection).

    One day he set us the following sentence to punctuate in such a way as to make sense; ‘In a test John had had had whereas Jane had had had had had had had had the examiner’s approval’.

    The answer, obviously, is; ‘In a test, John had had ‘had’, whereas Jane had had ‘had had’. ‘Had had’ had had the examiner’s approval.

    Funny the things from school you never forget.

    • Oh, I remember Mr Curtis (although he never taught me). He always seemed like a cool teacher. I remember the thing about ‘had had had had’ too; I think it must have gone around the school.

      • Mark Brafield permalink

        It must have been his party piece. I remember him stepping in at the last moment to play the lead role in the school production of ‘Ross’ when the principal was taken ill; it was a superb performance. He left after my second year, although I saw him across the street years later when he took a party to the Oxford Playhouse. I am still annoyed with myself that I did not cross the road to say hello and how much I owed him.

  2. Simon Carter permalink

    I remember a similar example of a pub landlord having a new sign painted and complaining that in the finished picture there wasn’t enough space between Pig and “And” and “And” and Whistle.

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