Thursday, February 12, 2009

Journalists' Bible supported by evidence

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is, in an almost literal sense, the Leviticus of journalism but its legitimacy may be based on more than conformity or lyrical style.

Previous research indicated that using a negative word such as 'not' in the middle of a sentence could make it more difficult to understand. In a new study published in Psychological Science, Nieuwland and Kuperberg demonstrate that if a negative word is "useful and informative" the sentence is as easy to understand as a positive statement. In other words, they demonstrate that if a negative word is "useful and informative" the sentence is not more difficult to understand than a postive statement. Did you find one of those two last sentences clearer than the other?

Here's the grammar nerd part: I doubt if their study was timed to coincide with Elements' 50th anniversary but their study echoes exquisitely point 15 which reminds actual and aspiring writers to "put statements in positive form" further recommending that the word not be reserved for denial and not evasion. Though Strunk and White prefer positive statements, they support the use of negative words when they are used for negation, where they are informative, and not evasion where they sometimes deliberately vague.

From Strunk and White:
Ixnay on the 'He was not very often on time.'
Thumbs up to ' He usually came late.'

Nieuwland and Kuperberg tell us:
Ixnay on the 'Vitamins and proteins aren't bad for your health.' (evasion)
Thumbs up to 'In moderation, drinking red wine isn't bad for your health.' (negation)

I love it when science and culture agree.

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