Talking it down

Jim and Mary Barr survey headlines covering a relatively positive art sale at Sothebys. In isolation, the international headlines got me scratching my head. Here's a sneaky double negative, for instance:
Sotheby's Sale Fails to Meet Low Expectations – WSJ

Gee that sound bad. But it means people paid higher prices than expected.

Bidders Respond to Lower Prices for Contemporary Art - Reuters

Sooo, they paid lower prices? No, they paid higher prices.

The Barrs see this media distortion of the facts as schadenfreude, or delight in misery of others. The sub-editors perform linguistic contortions to persuade us it's all bad bad bad and art investors are fools.

Words with negative meanings have a deadly power to infuse readers with their own gloom. Worth remembering, whether you're aiming to mess with people's minds or to write plain language. Glance at those headlines and what hits you?
* fail
* lower expectations
* low prices

Grammatically, fail is positive. But its meaning is negative, both literally and psychologically.


Rachel McAlpine
Rachel McAlpine

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