Do You Over-rely on Negation?: Switch to Positive Claims for More Clarity

This will seem like a very obvious thing to say, but all academic writing involves many, many sentences that make claims about things using the verb “to be.” This verb is so essential to academic writing because it is used to state facts about things, to define the attributes of things, something, and something. In other words, the verb “to be” is often used when we are trying to be clear and precise in our meanings. However, something about the problem with the verb when we construct it negatively. Times when we try to write sentences with the goal of clarifying but that actually leave open all sorts of logical possibilities for what a thing actually is. In this entry, we’ll work on employing Positive Claim as a way to clarify instances of negation.

Sometimes, we sacrifice the Clarity of our prose in an effort to avoid repetition in our writing. The work we do to craft clear, formally unique sentences often accidentally leads us to their obverse—over-complicated, woefully wrought language that obscures our rhetorical intentions. Relying on negation to articulate our ideas is a common mistake scholars across the disciplines make when writing. Often, negation creates a lack of specificity that gives the reader too much agency over the meaning of our sentences. For example, if something is “not good,” then what is it . . . is it, bad, great, benign. Here at the Writing Center, we call the language of negation “Negative Claims.” A Negative Claim creates meaning through negation. In this entry, we begin by defining just what we mean by “Positive Claims” and detail a strategy for targeting “Negative Claims” in our writing.

Ironically, the best way to define “Positive Claims” is through negation. Positive Claims speak in a language that does not rely on negation—the obverse of the intended noun or verb—to articulate an idea. Instead, the Positive Claim asserts through affirmation. In it you tell the reader what a grammatical Subject or Object is or does rather than what it is not or does not do. For example, “this revision strategy isn’t bad” becomes “this revision strategy is useful with respect to its object of study but remains too limited in its scope.”

Disclaimer: Perhaps because the performance of Standard American English is nearly as irregular as the language itself, there are, of course, exceptions to the rule of the Positive Claim usage. Indeed, at times, Negative Claims may be the clearest way to unpack and articulate an idea.

The Fix: Seek and Rephrase

Like many of the revision strategies presented in this guide “Switch to Positive Claims for More Clarity” is a labor of love. It takes time. But we believe mastering Positive Claim usage is time-well spent. Ultimately, this entry encourages you to practice a kind of mindfulness in employing Positive Claims (and avoiding Negative Claims) that will, hopefully, render the advice below superfluous.

  • Step One: Run an in-document search (CTRL/Command + F) for commonly used phrases of negation (and their contractions), as well as a few key prefixes and suffixes, which include, but are not limited to: not, non-, none, un-, ir-, and n’t.
    • In some way mark—highlight, bold, underline—each Negative Claim.
  • Step Two: Read the offending sentence as well as the sentence before and after the use of a Negative Claim. Here, context matters.
  • Step Three: Consider the intent of your use of the Negative Claim. If you intended to leave room for interpretation, whereby the reader participates in meaning making, then great! You’re all set. Move on to the next instance of negation. If not, and there is a lack of clarity—a lack of specificity—continue to Ste Five.
    • Determine if there is a more specific Positive Claim, an affirmation rather than a negation, that I can substitute for my use of the Negative Claim. Remember, maintaining fidelity to your original intent (here the Negative Claim clouds this intent) is paramount.
  • Step Four: Swap the Negative Claim for a Positive Claim and move on to the next form of negation.

Here are a few examples of Negative Claims and their translation into Positive Claims:

  1. In our echo-chamber it was not hard to forget about the world.
  2. In our echo-chamber it was easy to forget about the world.


  1. The mentality was to work hard, keep your head down, and don’t question authority.
  2. The mentality was to work hard, keep your head down, and obey authority.