Negative-Positive Restatement in Grammar

John F. Kennedy
Getty Images / Central Press


Negative-positive restatement is a method of achieving emphasis by stating an idea twice, first in negative terms and then in positive terms.

Negative-positive restatement often takes the form of parallelism.

An obvious variation on this method is to make the positive statement first and then the negative.

Examples and Observations

  • "[F]reedom is not given, it is won."
    (Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Beacon Press, 1967)
  • "The Big Bang Theory does not tell us how the universe began. It tells us how the universe evolved, beginning a tiny fraction of a second after it all started."
    (Brian Greene, "Listening to the Big Bang." Smithsonian, May 2014)
  • "The real sadness of fifty is not that you change so much but that you change so little."
    (Max Lerner, quoted by Sanford Lakoff in Max Lerner: Pilgrim in the Promised Land. University of Chicago Press, 1998)
  • "The worst walls are never the ones you find in your way. The worst walls are the ones you put there—you build yourself."
    (Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Stone Ax and the Muskoxen." The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. by Susan Wood. Ultramarine, 1980)
  • "Our business in this world is not to succeed, but to continue to fail, in good spirits."
    (Robert Louis Stevenson, "Reflections and Remarks on Human Life." Letters and Miscellanies, 1902)
  • "It's not pining, it's passed on! This parrot is no more!"
    (John Cleese, "The Dead Parrot Sketch." Monty Python's Flying Circus, episode 8)
  • "The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young."
    (Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890)
  • "During his happiest years, [James] Thurber did not write the way a surgeon operates, he wrote the way a child skips rope, the way a mouse waltzes."
    (E.B. White, The New Yorker, November 11, 1961)
  • "People don't choose their careers; they are engulfed by them."
    (John Dos Passos, The New York Times, Oct. 25, 1959)
  • "You don't lead by pointing and telling people some place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case."
    (Ken Kesey, quoted in Esquire, 1970)
  • "This is no day to pay mere lip service to integration; we must pay life service to it."
    (Martin Luther King, Jr., "The Rising Tide of Racial Consciousness," September 6, 1960)
  • "Genius is not perfected, it is deepened. It does not so much interpret the world as fertilize itself with it."
    (André Malraux, Man's Fate, 1933)
  • "The stabbing horror of life is not contained in calamities and disasters, because these things wake one up and one gets very familiar and intimate with them and finally they become tame again... No, it is more like being in a hotel room in Hoboken, let us say, and just enough money in one's pocket for another meal."
    (Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn, 1938)
  • "Waking is the wrong word for what I did that morning. There was no emergence from darkness, there was no jolt into consciousness. I didn't wake up as such—my disease just got this new open-eyed, standing-up symptom. I drank some water. It felt as though the first few mouthfuls were absorbed straight into the hard dry sponge of my tongue. I made coffee easily enough but then poured it into the ashtray. I lit the filter end of two consecutive cigarettes."
    (Robert McLiam Wilson, Eureka Street. Arcade, 1997)
  • "I wanted no interruption in the regularity of feeding, the steadiness of growth, the even succession of days. I wanted no interruption, wanted no oil, no deviation. I just wanted to keep on raising a pig, full meal after full meal, spring into summer into fall."
    (E.B. White, "Death of a Pig." The Atlantic, January 1948)
  • "Listen up, maggots. You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You're the same decaying organic matter as everything else."
    (Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden in Fight Club, 1999)
  • "He wasn't there to dip, to consume—he was there to reconstruct. He wasn't there for his own profit—not, that is, the direct; he was there on some chance of feeling the brush of the wing of the stray spirit of youth."
    (Henry James, The Ambassadors, 1903)
  • "I am not thinking of philosophy as courses in philosophy or even as a subject exclusive of other subjects. I am thinking of it in its old Greek sense, the sense in which Socrates thought of it, as the love and search for wisdom, the habit of pursuing an argument where it leads, the delight in understanding for its own sake, the passionate pursuit of dispassionate reasonableness, the will to see things steadily and to see them whole."
    (Brand Blanshard, The Uses of a Liberal Education. Alcove Press, 1974)
  • Negative-Positive Restatements in Speeches
    "And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country... My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."
    (President John Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961)
    "Now the trumpet summons us again—not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need—not as a call to battle, though embattled we are—but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, 'rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation,' a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself."
    (President John Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961)
    "I’m not talking about blind optimism, the kind of hope that just ignores the enormity of the tasks ahead or the road blocks that stand in our path. I’m not talking about the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sidelines or shirk from a fight. I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting."
    (President Barack Obama, election night victory speech, November 7, 2012)
    "He was not a bust made of marble; he was a man of flesh and blood—a son and a husband, a father, and a friend."
    (President Barack Obama, speech at the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela, December 10, 2013)
  • Effects of Negative-Positive Restatement
    "Here emphasis is achieved by stating an idea twice, first in negative terms, then in positive:
    Color is not a human or personal reality; it is a political reality.
    James Baldwin
    This is more than poetic insight; it is hallucination.
    J.C. Furnas
    The poor are not like everyone else. They are a different kind of people. They think and feel differently; they look upon a different America than the middle class looks upon.
    Michael Harrington
    Generally the same sentence contains both the negative and positive statements (as in the first two examples here). In an extended passage, negative and positive may be expressed in separate sentences (the third example).
    Less commonly the progression may be from positive to negative, as in this sentence by G.K. Chesterton about social conventions: Conventions may be cruel, they may be unsuitable, they may even be grossly superstitious or obscene, but there is one thing they never are. Conventions are never dead. All this could be put more briefly: Although conventions may be cruel, unsuitable, or even grossly superstitious or obscene, they are never dead. But not put so well."
    (Thomas S. Kane, The Oxford Essential Guide to Writing. Berkley Books, 2000)
  • Peter Elbow on "Natural" Language
    "I defend the term 'natural.' Surely it's the right word for language that comes to the tongue and mind without effort or planning. I'm not saying that culture doesn't shape what comes naturally to tongue and mind. I'm not saying that the same kind of language will be natural from one person or culture to another. But since we speak long before we write, the language that comes most easily to tongue and mind will tend to have features characteristic of speech (though not always). When language is careful and planned, it often sounds different from language that is less planned. Listeners or readers usually hear the planning or effort or lack of ease. It's not surprising that people often remark on language as sounding natural or not."
    (Peter Elbow, "Discourses." Everyone Can Write: Essays Toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching, by Peter Elbow. Oxford University Press, 2000)
  • The Lighter Side of Negative-Positive Restatement
    "Lies! Those ain't lies! Those are campaign promises! They expect 'em!"
    (William Demarest as Sergeant Heppelfinger in Hail the Conquering Hero, 1944)
    "She sat down. It is a simple act, this of sitting down, but like everything else, it may be an index to character. There was something wholly satisfactory to Ashe in the manner in which this girl did it. She neither seated herself on the extreme edge of the easy-chair, as one braced for instant flight; nor did she wallow in the easy-chair, as one come to stay for the week-end. She carried herself in an unconventional situation with an unstudied self-confidence which he could not sufficiently admire."
    (P.G. Wodehouse, Something Fresh, 1915)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Negative-Positive Restatement in Grammar." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Negative-Positive Restatement in Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Negative-Positive Restatement in Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).