5 reasons to use positive phrasing – with references!

I get fed up of psudoscience blog articles on everything from sugar-free diets to ice baths to ‘manifesting abundance’ – so I thought I’d write something that involved actual references to peer-reviewed papers. 

Positive phrasing is something I really wish I could go back to.  It’s easily the thing that I think made the most difference to my life when I was doing it.

What is it? It’s simple. For three months while I was working in Aberdeen I refused to say any of the following words in the office:

  • NO
  • NOT
  • DON”T
  • WON’T
  • CAN’T

…and in fact any contraction of the word NOT and another word.  This was strictly at the lexical level. I kept my mind entirely on the words, rather than the semantics. I could, for example, have said “That man makes me think of Hitler more positively” and it would have been entirely fine in the context of positive phrasing (even if it would have been outside the bounds of good manners).

  1. This was policed by a good set of people I was working with and a ‘negativity box’, which had 20p put in it every time I failed to self-censure… This is the genuine box (I know I’ve used it to illustrate other things in this blog, but it’s original purpose was as negativity box…)


Why was it so good? Because when you change your language it changes the way you think.

1. People react badly to “No”s in speech People react better to positives in speech

So instead of saying “Don’t want to wait” I would say “want to go”. Instead of “She’s NOT doing anything” it would be “She’s free all day”.

This is often called acquiescence or agreement bias – it’s a scientifically measurable effect (DiStefano & Motl, 2006; Cronbach, 1950; DeVellis, 1991) to the extent that a range of sources (e.g., Anastasi, 1982; Anderson, 1981; Mehrens & Lehmann, 1983; Nunnally, 1978; Spector, 1992) advocate mixing positive and negative phrasing on questionnaires in order to get accurate responses. (Much of these references came from Chen 2007).

2. Constructive conversation.

One of the nicest things to happen is it changes how you approach problems. Consider:

Labmate: do you think X would help?

Me: No, wouldn’t work.

compared with

Labmate: do you think X would help?

Me: I think Y might be a better idea.

Suddenly instead of knocking ideas down, I’m making constructive suggestions.

3. If you CAN’T say anything nice…

More than once, in office conversation, something would make me prick up my ears, about a colleague, event, or situation – I’d turn around, open my mouth-

-and stop. I’d stop because I’d realize that while, I could find a positive phrasing of ‘No, that’s NOT going to happen because he WOULDN’T be seen dead actually helping someone”, it really wasn’t going to be worth it. When you start looking at things this way it really is astonishing how much bitching you really do. How much of your everyday speech is devoted to just rubbishing something for the sole reason that you want everyone nearby to know that you think it’s rubbish?

4. Negatives are harder for people to process.

One of the things that’s been interesting watching my god-children grow up, is how hard they find “DON’T” as a word.  “Sit down!” is much much easier for a child to understand than “Don’t stand up!”. For the second one, the child has to correctly work out which words are the original command (“stand up”), and then negate them in the particular context they are in (because the negation could be “sit down” if you are in the bath, or “lie down” in bed, or “stay still” – a literally minded child might understand his mum/dad to be saying “do NOT perform the act of changing position to standing” rather than what she probably means which is “stop being in the state of standing), then, once the command has been separated out, and successfully negated, only then can it be obeyed.

This is why parenting books spend quite a lot of time on the issue of stating things positively, and I think it’s just as important when talking to anyone (I’d link you to amazon – but there are just too many examples, go have a search)

(The classic references are: Gough, 1965, Clark 1976, and, for children specifically, Gaer 1969  – the 1000 or so citations they have between them are pretty solid as well…)

5. It’s easier for people to remember positive information

It turns out that if you give people a set of both positively and negatively phrased sentences, they’ll remember the positive ones much better (Cornish 1970), more to the point “that the majority of errors took the form of conversions from negative to affirmative, independently of meaning”. Worth remembering that one.


  • Chen, Yi-Hsin, Gianna Rendina-Gobioff, and Robert F. Dedrick. “Detecting Effects of Positively and Negatively Worded Items on a Self-Concept Scale for Third and Sixth Grade Elementary Students.” Online Submission 14 (2007).
  • Cornish, Elizabeth R., and Peter C. Wason. “The recall of affirmative and negative sentences in an incidental learning task.” The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 22.2 (1970): 109-114.
  • Gaer, Eleanor P. “Children’s understanding and production of sentences.” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 8.2 (1969): 289-294.
  • Clark, Herbert H., and Peter Lucy. “Understanding what is meant from what is said: A study in conversationally conveyed requests.” Journal of verbal learning and verbal behavior 14.1 (1975): 56-72.
  • Gough, Philip B. “Grammatical transformations and speed of understanding.” Journal of verbal learning and verbal behavior 4.2 (1965): 107-111.
  • DiStefano, C.,& Motl, R. W. (2006). Further Investigating Method Effects Associated With Negatively Worded Items on Self-Report Surveys. Structural Equation Modeling: A Multidisciplinary Journal 13, 440-464.
  • Cronbach, L. J. (1950). Further evidence on response sets and test design. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 10,3–31.
  • DeVellis, R. F. (1991). Scale development: Theory and applications. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  • Anastasi, A. (1982). Psychological testing (5th ed.). New York: Macmillan.
  • Anderson, L. W. (1981). Affective characteristics in the schools.Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Mehrens, W., & Lehmann, I. (1983). Measurement and Evaluation in Education and Psychology 3rd ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
  • Nunnally, J. (1978). Psychometric theory (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Spector, P. E. (1992). Summated rating scale construction: An introduction. Newbury Park, CA:Sage.

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