Thursday, October 1, 2009

Don't Not Break the Rules

A few years ago, I was talking to this guy at work and I said something like, “It’s not uncommon to…” The guy stopped me and said, “So, you mean it’s common?” Somewhat flustered to have my thought pattern interrupted, I said “Yeah” and tried to continue what I was saying. After considering the conversation, I came to the conclusion that no, I didn’t mean that it’s common. I meant that it wasn’t uncommon.

You see the problem here. Not uncommon is a double negative. Your high school English teacher probably marked double negatives with red ink, telling you that you shouldn’t use them because they can cause confusion. But there’s a lot of space between common and uncommon. What if something is near the middle? It isn’t common, but it isn’t really uncommon either. The double negative solves the problem of stating this very succinctly.

Consider also the tautology. You’ve heard such phrases as “free gift” or “unsolved mystery.” If we did what we ought, we wouldn’t use redundant terms, but they tend to add emphasis. We talk about the free gift of salvation, for example. It isn’t that we don’t think that people realize that a gift is free, but we want to emphasize that salvation is free. Of course a mystery is unsolved, but we want to emphasize that we are still trying to solve the mystery.

The non sequitur, the oxymoron—they too have a purpose in both the spoken language and the written language. Don’t take this as permission to ignore these things, but to blindly rule out these things because they may cause confusion is to remove some of the beauty of the English language. It’s not wrong to make the reader pause and give careful consideration of the weight of your words. What is wrong is to follow the rules so well that your writing reads like a technical manual. So, don't not break the rules.


Kate said...

I'd never really considered this before but very good point. Interesting read - thanks

Kate x

Lady Glamis said...

I've gotten sucked into rules before. It's frustrating! Good points here!