Here’s a troublesome sentence from the Social Q’s column in the New York Times from November 3, 2019:
“But if you can’t find a way to trust your husband again, I don’t believe you can afford not to divorce him.”
What does that sentence mean? Even though I’ve read and reread it, I still wouldn’t be willing to swear that I understand it. I think this is what it’s saying:
“If you can’t find a way to trust your husband again, you need to divorce him.”
But there are three negatives (can’t find, don’t believe, not divorce). It takes a lot of plodding to work your way through that. Why not just say what you mean?
Here’s some advice for you: write positive sentences.
I can’t believe Janet didn’t get the promotion. CONFUSING
I’m amazed that Janet wasn’t promoted. BETTER
While we’re at it, let’s talk about an urban legend concerning double negatives: two negatives indicate a positive. No. English isn’t math.
Many languages – including Russian and Spanish – have double negatives. Do you really want to tell the Russians that they don’t know how to do math?
And this may surprise you: Old English used to have double negatives too. They’re gone now, of course, and they’re considered a diction mistake. Don’t use a double negative (“I don’t have nothing”) at a job interview! But don’t let anyone tell you that two negatives make a positive.