Important negative meanings can be missed because they are not always communicated by familiar simple negative words like “not” and “never”
DEFINITION OF HIDDEN NEGATIVES
Negative statements do not always involve the fundamental negative words not, no, never etc., nor even familiar negative word parts such as un-, in-, dis-, mis- and -less (see 106. Word-like Suffixes and 146. Some Important Prefix Types). There are many other words – of all grammatical types – with negative meaning, and some of them are not obviously negative at all.
Take the adjective debatable. It seems to be a synonym of arguable, but it has a negativity that arguable lacks. It suggests the writer’s disagreement with a statement in same way as questionable (see 152. Agreeing and Disagreeing in Formal Contexts).
Words like debatable are examples of what I call hidden negatives. In more technical terms, they are words with a “negative connotation” (see 16. Ways of Distinguishing Similar Words). Professional writers seem to find them useful in at least two ways. Firstly, they are often more polite than negatives of a more obvious kind – a valuable property in professional writing (see 166. Appropriacy in Professional English). Secondly, they allow variety in the way that negative meaning is expressed – important when negative statements are being made in large numbers (see 5. Repetition with Synonyms).
THE IMPACT OF HIDDEN NEGATIVES ON READING
Negatives in general contribute very important meaning to a sentence. This is clear from considering a sentence like Hippopotamuses are not safe to approach: if we fail to notice not, the opposite meaning from the intended one will be understood, with possibly fatal consequences. Happily, normal negatives like not are rarely missed, because they are so familiar to us.
Hidden negatives, on the other hand, are much easier to miss, because they will not be so familiar. They are especially likely to be found in professional writing and in newspaper opinion columns because the critical nature of these kinds of writing easily leads to negative judgements being made (see 152. Agreeing and Disagreeing in Formal Contexts and 168. Ways of Arguing 2). In this post I wish to demonstrate the variety of hidden negatives that exists in English, and to provide some practice in recognising them.
PRACTICE WITH EXAMPLES OF HIDDEN NEGATIVES
A task below presents eleven different examples of hidden negatives to try and identify. As a preparation for doing it, consider these further examples: excessive, overstated, extreme, speculative, at first sight, feeble, limited, naive and hard to accept. The first three all express the idea of something being more than what is normally acceptable. Here is an example of how one of them might be used to cast doubt on a statement:
(a) The dangers of nuclear energy are overstated.
The writer is here arguing that nuclear energy is not dangerous, or at least less dangerous than is usually argued.
The word speculative once occurred in an academic research article that I gave to some students to read. The writer used it to dismiss a theory because it was not based on proper research. It means “based on intuition or reflection”. While ideas based on intuition or reflection may be more acceptable in a subject like philosophy, in a social science intuition without empirical research evidence is considered to be a weakness. My students, unfortunately, did not appreciate that, and thought that the writer was recommending the theory in question instead of criticising it.
The phrase at first sight is similar to the adverb superficially (see 85. Preposition Phrases & Corresponding Adverbs). Both refer to the fact that when we see something for the first time we do not notice hidden aspects of it: good things can seem bad and bad things can seem good. Hence, if we see either of these expressions accompanying a positive description of something, we should understand that the positiveness is false. Consider this example:
(b) At first sight, buying furniture made from artificial wood is good value for money.
The message here is that such furniture is not really good value for money!
The word feeble illustrates another common feature of hidden negatives: metaphorical meaning (see 4. Metaphorical Meanings). The base meaning, “extremely weak”, is about health. Used to describe, say, an argument, it suggests disagreement. Now here is the practice task aimed at helping you to see how well you recognise hidden negatives in general.
EXERCISE: Find a hidden negative in all of these statements except one (answers are below).
1. In view of its effect on health, smoking has little justification.
2. The power of government spending to eradicate poverty is a myth.
3. Another bogus idea is that football success can be achieved without money.
4. There is a degree of truth in the claim that British colonialism brought benefits as well as suffering.
5. The teaching of grammatical structures by means of parrot-like repetition is justified on quite shaky grounds.
6. The construction of new roads is an all too easy solution to the problem of traffic congestion.
7. Women are better at learning languages than men, according to some wishful thinkers.
8. The notion that poverty is a self-inflicted evil must be dismissed immediately.
9. The use of mosquito nets is an apparently simple solution to the problem of malaria in tropical countries.
10. Suggesting that future humans will live for 150 years or more stretches belief a little.
11. Weight can be lost without exercising, it is often erroneously believed.
12. A flimsy case is sometimes made that humans did not really visit the moon in 1969.
1 = little (not to be confused with the positive a little!).
2 = a myth (= “an untrue story”. Note also the adjective mythical. Both words are of Greek origin – see 90. The Greek Impact on English Vocabulary).
3 = bogus
4 = No negative word. A degree of is positive like a little and a few
5 = shaky (another good example of a metaphorical negative)
6 = (all) too (similar in meaning to excessive, overstated and extreme)
7 = wishful thinkers (wishful nearly always accompanies some form of THINK. It suggests impossible dreams).
8 = dismissed
9 = apparently (similar in meaning to superficially – not to be confused with obviously).
10 = stretches belief (rather a polite expression: the negativeness is made less brutal by the idea of “stretching” instead of breaking)
11 = erroneously
12 = flimsy (another word meaning “weak”, like feeble, shaky, fragile and thin)