Double Negative (DOG EAR)

Double Negative (DOG EAR)

is complexion was dark, the eyes and hair almost black; the former very bright and penetrating; his brow was high, broad and square; his nose was prominent, and there was about the mouth an expression of firmness, not unmixed with kindness.

This from Caesar’s Column, a book by Ignatious Donnelly, written ornately in 1890. Now, I understand the baroque dialog of the time and often (as in the case of War of the Worlds) love it. But here it gave me pause. And not in a reflective good-way. No, I had to stop and decode what was being said.

So, this is a critical description of the protagonist’s new companion, a man first encountered disguised as a beggar, whipped and nearly run down by a passing carriage. Of course, the hero stepped in, caught the whip and administered cutting rebukes (and lashings) to the driver in his box, rot him. So we’re meeting this fellow (I don’t even know his name yet – I stopped upon reading this), now mild mannered and suave, hardly the ruffian from a few pages prior. Like the hero, we readers are taking stock of the man for that first critical impression. And that’s what threw me, the last four words.

not unmixed with kindness.

So, wait, does that mean his expression of firmness is a kind-firmness, or a cruel one? This can make all the difference. And that double negative tripped me. I actually had to stop and mentally reorder the line (cancelling out the double negatives) to get…

mixed with kindness.

And that makes more sense. So this is (in that literary way, where people can be judged directly by their facial expressions) a man to be trusted, a man the hero will befriend and depend upon. But as a reader, it made me stop and think. And as a blogger, it made me stop and write.

Remember, flow is important. So if you don’t want your readers huddling in the portals of your descriptions, fussing over structure, don’t toss in weird bits like double negatives or hidden meanings. It breaks the tempo of the story.