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6.3 Sentences are phrased positively

See 6.3 of the Checklist »

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Use positive sentences instead of negative sentences wherever possible.

Use positive sentences

Positive sentences are more direct and easier to understand than negative sentences. This is because negation requires an additional level of processing (a "mental switch" from "no" to "yes") when compared with positive sentences.

Positive sentences are also often shorter than the negative equivalent (see item 6 of the Standard: Sentences are short, simple, and precise).

Example 1

cross.gif A person who is not under the age of 17

tick.gif A person aged 17 or over

Example 2

cross.gif  A person must do X not less than 24 hours before Y

tick.gif  A person must do X at least 24 hours before Y

Example 3

cross.gif  A person is not entitled to Y unless the person does X

tick.gif  A person who does X is entitled to Y

Example 4

cross.gif  If you fail to arrive by 5 pm, I cannot pick you up.

tick.gif  You have to arrive by 5 pm if you want me to pick you up.

Consider effect of context and intent on meaning

A positive version of a negative sentence does not always have the same meaning. The sentences in examples 5 and 6 present the same information but with different implications. Context and intent are important factors to consider when deciding whether to write a sentence positively or negatively.

Example 5

  • In New Zealand, cars do not drive on the right-hand side of the road.
  • In New Zealand, cars drive on the left-hand side of the road.

Example 6

  • I’m leaving the house.
  • I’m not staying at the house.

Double negatives

When you write a sentence containing 2 negatives, they cancel each other out (see 8.9 of the Checklist). Your sentence sounds negative but is actually positive and still requires a mental switch from negative to positive. This can hinder readability and should be avoided where possible.

However, double negatives can also be used to create subtlety in meaning and implication.

Example 7

cross.gif  It is not unimportant to clean your teeth.

tick.gif  It is important to clean your teeth.

Example 8

cross.gif  No approval of any noise compatibility program, or any portion of a program, may be implied in the absence of the agency’s express approval.

tick.gif  You must get the agency’s express approval for any noise compatibility program or any portion of a program.

Example 9

cross.gif  The court consists of no fewer than 4 nor more than 6 other Judges.

tick.gif  The court consists of at least 4, but not more than 6, other Judges.

Example 10

cross.gif  The Minister may grant New Zealand citizenship to any person who has not yet attained the age of 16 years.

tick.gif  The Minister may grant New Zealand citizenship to any person who is under 16 years.

 Example 11

cross.gif  An application may not be made until 15 working days after the money has been paid.

tick.gif  An application may only be made 15 working days after the money has been paid.

Example 12

cross.gif  A disclaimer of land is not valid unless it is made by deed or by order of a court.

tick.gif  A disclaimer of land is valid only if it is made by deed or by order of a court.

Words with negative meanings

Many words and expressions have a negative meaning, such as unless, fail to, notwithstanding, except, other than, unlawful, disallowed, terminate, void, and insufficient, etc. Watch out for them when they appear after "not". Find a positive word to express your meaning.

Example 13

cross.gif  An application for a grant does not become void unless the applicant’s failure to provide requested information is unreasonable under the circumstances.

tick.gif  An application for a grant remains active if the applicant provides the information we request within a reasonable time.

Avoid exceptions to exceptions

An exception to an exception is another form of double negative that the user must puzzle out. Rewrite the sentence to emphasise the positive.

Example 14

cross.gif  Applicants may be granted a permit to prospect for geothermal resources on any Crown land except lands in a reserve, unless the applicant holds valid existing rights to the geothermal resources in the reserve listed in the application.

tick.gif  You may be granted a permit to prospect for geothermal resources on any Crown land. This includes lands in a reserve only if you hold valid existing rights to the geothermal resources in the reserve listed in your application.

Tip: Be conscious of the (legal and interpretive) implications of using double negatives and whether those implications help or hinder the function of the text you are writing.

Exception: prohibitions

Prohibitions may be phrased negatively:

Example 15

tick.gif  Dogs are not allowed on the playground

Example 16

tick.gif  The rate of interest must not exceed the prescribed rate

Legislation: exceptions to a general rule

Exceptions to a general rule may be expressed in a negative phrase. This avoids repeating words because the negative phrase states what the general rule does not apply to:

Example 17—exception expressed as a negative

cross.gif (1) A person must not operate a sleigh without a licence.
  (2) Despite subsection (1), a person who does not have a licence may operate a sleigh if the person is under the immediate supervision of Saint Nicholas.
     
tick.gif (1) A person must not operate a sleigh without a licence.
  (2) Subsection (1) does not apply to a person who is under the immediate supervision of Saint Nicholas.

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