Source: Rebecca Gowers. Plain Words (2014 ed). p. 186 Middle.

Here are two more examples of sentences that have to be unravelled before they yield any meaning :

Few would now contend that too many checks cannot be at least as harmful to democracy as too few.

Please help me grapple with this phrase; I'm practicing unravelling multiple negatives.

1. ... too many checks cannot be at least as harmful as too few.

Because at least as = ≥, 1 becomes:

2. too many checks   cannot be      harmful  as too few.

Because "not ≥" = , 2 becomes:

3. too many checks   can be     harmful   as too few.


You've almost got it. But I think you're dropping a negative in step 5. Since "no less" means "equal to or more", then 5 should be:

"cannot be no less" = "cannot be equally as, or more.." (although the 'equally' is not needed)

So that would give 6 as:

"too many checks cannot be (equally) as, or more harmful ... as too few"

The overall meaning is therefore:

"Too many checks will be less harmful than too few."

On solving it more easily, yes you probably could have. I'd have done it in two steps. First, "at least as harmful" means "as, or more, harmful". Then, second, "cannot be as, or more, harmful" means "must be less harmful." Done.

Why the simple future? Mostly just carelessness on my part. Notice in the above paragraph I end up with "must be less harmful" instead of "will be less harmful".

  • +1. Thank you! Could I please ask two follow-ups? 7. (I continue the numbering from my OP) Could I've solved this more easily? I think that no less* is redundant, because from at least as, I could've proceeed straight to "equal to or more" ? 8. in your last sentence, you used 'will', instead of 'can'. Could I please ask why you used the future simple tense? – NNOX Apps Mar 29 '15 at 14:53
  • Will you please to respond in your answer, because it is easier than read than comments? – NNOX Apps Mar 29 '15 at 15:06
  • @Greek-Area51Proposal, your recent (June 2018) edits have rendered my answer invalid, not least because I mention your original items 5 and 6 but you have now deleted those. Also, it's no longer clear what you're asking. Your original question is still there in the title, but while prior to your edits, points 5 and 6 were a specific restatement of that general question, now you seem to leave it as if you're all good and need no further help. I'm not saying you need to change anything, but at very least you might want to unaccept my answer since it no longer makes sense. I can then delete it. – tkp Jun 18 '18 at 17:58

I believe the sentence had a misplaced modifier: the "at least" is meant as a sentence adverb.

  • At least, [one could say that] too many checks cannot be as harmful to democracy as too few.

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