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These two quotes contradict. I hate multiple negatives! Waste of effort, time, space, words! I have to stop reading and spend like 15 mins. reasoning to the positive meaning!

But how can double negatives "has a respectable history as a rhetorical device for emphasis" when they can be "incomprehensible combinations"?

Page 166.

F. Use double negatives sparingly for understatement. The double negative, such as “not infrequently,” has a respectable history as a rhetorical device for emphasis. Although it has fallen out of favor, it may still be employed on occasion as a means of understatement. For example, “not wholly unsuccessful” understates a lack of success, thus emphasizing it, as compared to its affirmative form “partially successful,” which emphasizes a degree of success.

Pg 201

C.WHEN POSSIBLE, MAKE SENTENCES AFFIRMATIVE, NOT NEGATIVE

We understand affirmative statements more quickly and easily than negative ones. In studies of the effects of language on the mind, researchers have found that affirmative statements are psychologically more linear than negative ones. With negative statements, we must first understand the affirmative sense, then negate it. This is analogous to understanding another language by first translating it into one’s own. Avoid these nearly incomprehensible combinations: “not otherwise,” “never unless,” “none unless,” “never otherwise,” and so forth.

Bahrych, Merino. Legal Writing and Analysis in a Nutshell 5th edition (2017).

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  • you could research "Litotes" and see if your language also uses this figure of speech.
    – James K
    Commented Mar 13, 2021 at 7:59

2 Answers 2

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The explanation is fairly simple: the two aspects don't always contradict. The warning about "incomprehensible combinations" applies only to a fairly restricted set of words and phrases. Avoid those and you may well have a double negative that is not too difficult to understand.

Also, that understanding becomes easier with practice. In fact, eventually it can feel completely automatic, with no need to explicitly analyze the phrase in one's mind.

That is for double negatives of course. For more complex structures -- a quadruple negative for example -- it would not be a surprise if we were unable to find an example phrase that was not incomprehensible without analysis (e.g. by counting the negatives to decide if there is an odd or even number of them.) 🤓

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This is not specifically about English! Many (all?) languages allow constructions like "not infrequently". Litotes often use such double negatives, and were well known in ancient Greek and Latin.

The meaning of "not infrequently" isn't the same as "frequently".

They are used rhetorically because they are a "waste of effort, time, space, words"! They take longer to process, so they force the listener to engage more the speaker.

They are effective because they are used rarely. Anything that is unusual stands out. But they are not usually suitable for legal writing that needs to be simple and boring. You don't want your contract to be elegant prose, you want it to be legally enforceable.

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