Posted by: cochinblogger | February 5, 2015

The Slippery Double Negative


Take a look at the slogan on the ATM machine: “It’s not a home till it’s not your own.” I must have read this slogan dozens of times earlier as I stood outside this ATM waiting in the queue, but I didn’t notice anything odd about it. One day, it hit me like a lightning bolt: Hey, that’s wrong! It should read: “It’s not a home until it’s your own.” The second “not” is an interloper. I was happy with this little discovery, because I had made productive use of my idling time in the queue. Why had I not spotted the error the very first time I read the ad? And why had the copywriter of the ad agency made this horrible mistake? The bank in question is a big bank and would have hired one of the leading ad agencies for this assignment. Why had they goofed up? I occupied myself with these thoughts until I entered the ATM.

By the way, this ATM presents the user with the following question: “Would you like to continue without printing a receipt?” I invariably hit “No,” only to be unceremoniously logged out of the process. This baffled me at first, but then it hit me. Of course, I didn’t want a printed receipt, so I had to hit “Yes.” But this is counter-intuitive! Look, I don’t want a printed receipt, so I my finger itches to hit “No.” The natural question that ought to be asked is, “Do you want a printed receipt?” to which the immediate answer is no. This is poor user interface design.

Another day, another queue, that ad again — and another lightning bolt! This time, I noticed that if “as long as” is substituted for “until,” the slogan works: “It’s not a home as long as it’s not your own.” Yes, this works! And i think I also know now how the copywriter made his fatal blunder. He would in all probability have come up with the “as long as” version first. And then he, or someone else in his department, would’ve had a brain wave: Why not replace those three words with just one word and make the slogan shorter and sweeter?! Little did he guess that another word could — nay, should — have been shaved off for an even shorter and sweeter result.

That was an example of the tricks the double negative can play with our minds. Here’s another example, from the media this time:

Yes, the subtitle should read: “Unless we create safe corridors for our tigers to freely travel, their numbers won’t grow further.” The first “don’t” is the same kind of error we saw in the housing loan ad. And again, the double negative would be correct if “as long as” were used instead of “Unless”: “As long as we don’t create safe corridors for our tigers to freely travel, their numbers won’t grow further.”

Have I stumbled upon the germ of an idea for a linguistics paper?! 🙂

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