Emphasizing the Positive

  1. John remembered to let the dog out.
  2. John forgot to let the dog out.
  3. It was thoughtful of John to let the dog out.
  4. It was thoughtless of John to let the dog out.

Sentences one and two look almost identical, as do sentences three and four. But the negativity of sentences two and four makes them significantly harder to interpret.

That’s the conclusion of researchers Marcel Just and Herbert Clark, based on their research at Stanford University*.

What the Research Covered

Groups of college participants read these four sentences (and others like them) under controlled conditions. Then they answered factual questions like, “Where is the dog?” and inferential ones like “Where is the dog supposed to be?”

What the Research Showed

Average times for a response to the factual question were:

  • Sentence 1:        1.795 seconds
  • Sentence 2:        2.199 seconds

Average times for the inferential question were:

  • Sentence 1:        1.939 seconds
  • Sentence 2:        2.410 seconds

Times for answering questions about sentences three and four showed a similar pattern.

Readers took about 22 percent longer to answer a factual question (“Where is the dog?”) when the original sentences appeared in negative form. For an inferential question (“Where is the dog supposed to be?”), readers took about 24 percent longer when the original sentences were negative.

What the Research Means for Business Writers

Readers read faster and understand better when your instructions are in a positive form. Sometimes writing positively takes a conscious effort (when you’re correcting an error or giving restrictive instructions), but that effort is almost always worthwhile.

In our seminars you learn proven techniques for writing positively, even when content is unfavorable or restrictive. When you use these techniques, readers get your point quickly and easily, and they respond favorably to your positive tone.

* Marcel Adam Just and Herbert H. Clark, “Drawing Inferences from the Presuppositions and Implications of Affirmative and Negative Sentences,” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, Vol. 12 (1973), pp. 21 – 31.