Double negative

Consider the following sentence:

“I was never certain that I didn’t want to go to the cinema”.

You can make sense of it if you sit and think about it for a while but it is pretty confusing. This is why writing guides suggest avoiding the use of the ‘double negative’: A sentence or phrase with two ‘not’ terms which, in this case, are the ‘never’ and the ‘didn’t’.

It could simply be the case that we find the sudden reversal of meaning unusual and this is what trips us up.

But it might be a cognitive load effect. Many sentences, even complex ones, consist of clauses linking just two or three ideas. By adding a double-negative, we have not only added another item but this item also interacts with the items already present by changing their meanings. So we now need to attend to the new relationships this creates. Together, this overloads working memory.

John Sweller is one of the greatest proponents of this idea of ‘element interactivity’ as a measure of complexity but it has been criticised by others for not being wholly quantifiable and for not yet being manipulated with experiments (although studies have begun to attempt to do this).

I suspect that element interactivity might prove to be a useful model.

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2 Comments on “Double negative”

  1. Pat Stone says:

    Fascinating. I have thought about this many times. It raises many questions.

    “..this overloads working memory…’ Not mine? The double negative sentence gave me something to think about in a way I find pleasurable. I would enjoy discussing the sentence’s meaning and how that meaning is made. I expect children could enjoy it, too. Deliberate manipulating things in our heads used to be called thinking. Most of us enjoy being able to do it. We need to teach children to do it, and they won’t learn it if we try to avoid cognitive overload. I also don’t think it will happen if we feed in facts and knowledge and just expect the ‘element interaction’ to happen.

    What is cognitive overload? Is it really a thing? Is it the same for everyone? Are there different types and quantities of elements that in interacting will cause more or less overload? What part does emotion play in the interaction of the elements, when emotion becomes one of the interacting elements? If I have done this ‘element interactivity’ successfully, often enough, will my working memory become overloaded as easily as that of someone who has not enjoyed similar success and will have different emotion chemicals interacting?

    Whilst using different ways to express it, is not this ability to employ our own working memory what some educators are looking for when they want to let children play and manipulate phenomena (yes, set up or directed by adults if you like) so that they find their own ways to “Put this in your head over here, this over here, think about this here, bring back element 1, 2 etc.” They need to do their own experiments, not have us experimenting on them.

    I think we need to analyse our own thinking a bit more, before we start on children’s, and before we accept what others are writing about what others are saying about children’s thinking.

    I think a lot of unscientific things are said about working memory. They need to be challenged. Thanks for the opportunity.


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