The Word for Writers
Not a Problem
Automobile production lines don’t exist, and my local college doesn’t actually offer classes. At least, that’s what I’ve read.
You’ve probably read it too. It’s the ad that declares, “All cars (or pens, or gloves, or whatever) are not created equal.” In other words, every car has been created unequal to all others. That rules out the production line.
Several years ago I was interested in taking classes at my local college. When I saw their ad in the Yellow Pages, I didn’t bother. It said, “All classes are not held in all locations.”
The problem, of course, is misplacement of the word ‘not’. It’s a common mistake, and it’s easy to make. It’s also easy to learn how to get it right. Don’t worry if you didn’t get a 4.0 in college, or if you weren’t home schooled by a genius mother. Just read on, and then practice.
Let’s look at the sentence ‘All cars are not created equal’. Because of where it’s placed in the sentence, the word ‘not’ modifies (changes or adds meaning to) the word ‘created’. So the sentence is saying that ‘not created equal’ is an attribute that applies to ‘all cars’. In other words, every car is created unequal to all others. With so many cars in the world, how do you suppose they keep track? What the advertiser really wanted to say was, ‘Not all cars are created equal.’ Now the word ‘not’ modifies the word ‘all’, which modifies the word ‘cars’. Now the sentence brings our attention to the fact that not all cars are created equal to all other cars. It still leaves the possibility that some cars may be created equal to some others. I can hear Detroit’s sigh of relief from here.
What about the classes that are not held in all locations? Take a moment, if you haven’t already, to find and correct the problem yourself, based on the example in the last paragraph. Then keep reading to check if you’ve got the idea.
In the sentence, ‘All classes are not held in all locations,’ the word ‘not’ modifies the word ‘held’. So, ‘not held’ applies to ‘all classes’ in ‘all locations’. Is there such a thing as a non-located class? Even an online class is located on a server, and on the student’s PC. The ad should have read, ‘Not all classes are held in all locations.’ Then the word ‘not’ would have modified the word ‘all’. If not all classes are held in all locations, that leaves room for some classes to be held in all locations, and for all classes to be held in some locations. It starts to sound like that famous monologue about pleasing some of the people some of the time, but now at least the students have some classes to attend. They may wish to earn their grammar credits elsewhere.
Next time you write a sentence that contains the word ‘not’ (or ‘isn’t’, ‘aren’t’, etc.), you may wish to take a moment to ask yourself which word ‘not’ modifies. It’s usually the word that comes just after. You could give yourself a chuckle. You could also catch an embarrassing mistake before your editor does.
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Thanks for writing this. I've never heard this.
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