Friday, June 12, 2009

Elements of Style: Positive Writing

This is the seventh installment of the Elements of Style Series where I relay helpful hints for good writing from the classic book, The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.

Rule 12 in Strunk and White is "Put statements in positive form." This rule is straightforward. Its application comes down to two sub-rules:

1. When negating a word or phrase, use its antonym. Avoid the word not.

Strunk and White give several examples where an antonym leads to better, more direct writing. My favorite is did not have much confidence in versus distrusted. This sub-rule goes hand-in-hand with picking a word that is right for the purpose. Appending not to an idea usually takes zest out of your sentence.

This is because the construction "not xxxx" usually leaves several interpretations of what you mean. This is especially true if xxxx is an all-inclusive word like everything or everyone. Instead of just negating the all-inclusive idea, it is better to write what you mean. For example, the sentence "Not everything about economics fascinates me." can be replaced by one of the following sentences (without contradicting the original sentence):

- I am fascinated by law and economics, industrial organization and transaction costs.
- No field of economics fascinates me.

To avoid miscommunication or confusion, be direct.

2. Make definite assertions.

Writing in positive form focuses attention on what is, rather than what is not. Readers typically want to know the answers to what is questions. A sentence about what is not requires a change in direction (and more thought to decipher the passage). Therefore, it is more natural to read a passage that is written in positive form. As good writers want to make the reader's job as easy as possible, good writers stick to the positive form. Here's an example from Strunk & White:
The Taming of the Shrew is rather weak in spots. Shakespeare does not portray Katharine as a very admirable character, nor does Bianca remain long in memory as an important character in Shakespeare's works.

is in negative form, whereas
The women in The Taming of the Shrew are unattractive. Katharine is disagreeable, Bianca insignificant.
is in positive form. Not only is the first passage difficult to understand, but its use of negative form requires more words. Good writing is clear and direct. The positive form helps us write more clearly and directly. Lesson? Write positively!

The next installment of the Elements of Style Series, "50 Years of Bad Grammar?" will appear on this blog on Friday, 19 June 2009. I will continue this series each Friday until I run out of interesting topics in grammar and writing.

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