Yesterday’s announcement that “unfriend” is the Oxford American Dictionary’s 2009 Word of the Year reminds me again of how negative concepts can become embedded in our parlance. The word does its job fine in the context of social networking sites, where the word “friend” has evolved into a verb. But it also brings home for me why it’s also important to use the positive voice when we write.

This doesn’t mean sugarcoating everything we say so that the message always leaves its recipient all warm and fuzzy. It does mean using wording that is uncluttered and future oriented – not looking back and telling people what they did wrong.

Consider this example:

From: I know you won’t make this mistake again.

To: I know you’ll improve next time.

Why write it forward?

Field tests of information have shown that people respond better to instructions that emphasize what to do, rather than what not to do. This is also true of pictorial instructions: the checkmark next to the preferred action was favoured over the ‘slash’ through the image of the undesirable action  (the classic No Smoking signs are likely the only exception).

Health promoters and educators have found that people whose first language was other than English have had trouble with the word “avoid” in health information. In general, negative constructions are harder to understand for second-language English speakers. It makes sense when you consider that negative constructions often mean adding more words, along with making  language sound pompous and overly complex – and driving up grade reading levels. Consider the example I posted a few weeks back.

So if you’re trying to simplify a dense piece of writing, you’ll often find that accentuating the positive puts you on the path to clarity. Here are a couple more examples of what I mean:

From: Failure to follow these instructions may result in further infection.

To: Please follow these instructions so that you can stay well.


From: Managers who submit their reports after the deadline may see them excluded from the final results statement.


To: Please submit your reports on time so that we may include them in the final results statement.


From: Avoid writing in the bottom section.


To: Only write in the top sections.checkbutton

Why do you think people love those Staples “Easy” buttons? ‘Cause they remind us of the positive – and give us the ability to bring some of it to our lives, even if only by hitting a dang button.

As I heard said in TD Insurance’s latest TV ads: Simple is good.

Want more examples of how to add more plus signs when you communicate? Read our post on How to accentuate the positive when you speak.