clear communication: choose positive over negative phrasing


Ce contenu est offert en anglais seulement.

(A similar topic is discussed in French in the article Communication claire : évitez la double négation.)

Positive phrasing is easier to understand than negative. You can be more assertive and straightforward when you say what something is than when you try to express it by saying what it isn’t. Here’s one example:

  • Negative phrasing: We are not used to such constant supervision.
  • Positive phrasing: We are used to working more autonomously.

Multiple negatives

Multiple negatives can further complicate your text. Your readers will either misunderstand it or have to reread it a few times to get to the meaning.

  • Negative phrasing: This is not to say that the proposal is not without merit.
  • Positive phrasing: The proposal lacks merit. (Alternatively, you could say something like, “The proposal is worthless.”)

Positive tone

A positive tone also affects how your readers react to your writing. It may just be subconsciously, but if your readers sense that a document is “speaking” to them kindly, they will be more inclined to follow the instructions in it than if they feel threatened or belittled.

  • Negative phrasing: Until you pay your library fines, you will not receive your diploma.
  • Positive phrasing: Once you have paid your library fines, you will receive your diploma.


A lot of the time, a positive sentence works out to be shorter than a negative one. And whenever you can say something in fewer words, you should!

  • Negative phrasing: Could you ask them if they wouldn’t mind turning the music down a little?
  • Positive phrasing: Could you ask them to turn the music down a little?

Here are some other examples of negative phrasing turned positive:

Expressions to avoid and ways to replace them
Negative Positive
Had the agent not given us the wrong directions, we would have been on time. Had the agent given us the right directions, we would have been on time.
I don’t think I would say I was impressed by his presentation. I was unimpressed by his presentation.
She doesn’t get sick very often. She rarely gets sick.
The experience was not altogether unpleasant. The experience was somewhat pleasant.
The I in Internet is never lowercase. The I in Internet is always uppercase.
Unless it is pouring rain, we will not cancel the event. If it is pouring rain, we will cancel the event.
You don’t need to be there until 9 p.m. You need to be there by 9 p.m.

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