Monday, September 13, 2010

Interrupting Yourself: Contrary Negatives

Seldom do we speak in a straight line. We pause, we go back, we interrupt ourselves, we repeat. The same is true in writing—even writing that is clear and concise. There are multiple ways to interrupt the flow of writing. Let’s take a look at the interruption called a contrary negative.

A contrary negative is a type of interruption that clarifies what we are talking about by stating what it is not. Here are some examples:

• The Tooltip, not the Screentip, gives the name of an icon or button on the screen.

• The left margin, but not the right margin, is indented for block quotes in our style.

Contrary negative interruptions always have a comma before and after. Make sure not to confuse them with the correlative conjunction not only, but also. This structure does not require any commas:

• Not only the background but also the entire text is selected by this method.

• The software handles not only pie charts but also bar, column, line, and scatter charts.

In a contrary negative, you are cutting out a possibility; with a correlative conjunction, you are adding a possibility. A possible memory aid is when you are cutting out a possibility, you also cut out that part of the sentence with commas.

So go ahead and interrupt yourself for clarity, but be sure to use the commas correctly.


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