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How to Deal With Negatives in Multiple Choice Questions

by S. Merritt on September 15, 2009

One of the reasons multiple choice questions are so difficult is that they’re often designed to be intentionally misleading. On a multiple choice test you may have to decipher complicated statements just to understand the question before you even start trying to find the correct response.

An overuse of negatives is one way that test designers try to trip up students. Single, double, even triple negatives are often used to complicate the meaning of the question.  And misreading just one negative means the whole meaning of the statement is reversed!

An Example

To start, let’s go to the extreme with a simple-but-complicated negative statement:

There’s nothing less worse than not answering a question incorrectly.

Does that make sense to you?  At first glance, this sentence is basically gibberish.  But it does have a meaning. Your job is to decipher it.

Identify the Negatives and Rewrite

The key to negatives is to rewrite the question in a way that keeps the original meaning, but is in plain English. Let’s take a look at the above phrase again, and identify the negatives by underlining them.

There’s nothing less worse than not answering a question incorrectly.

Let’s start with less worse.  What does less worse mean?  If something is less worse, it must be “better”.

So less worse=better.

Now our sentence reads: There’s nothing less worse better than not answering a question incorrectly.

Not bad, but not great either. What about not and the prefix in?  The great thing about multiple negatives is that they cancel each other out.  We can get rid of one negative from a sentence as long as we get rid of another one to keep the balance.  As long as we do this in pairs, the meaning of the sentence stays the same.

So, stroke out not and in, and we get:

There’s nothing less worse better than not answering a question incorrectly.

What does our sentence say now?

There’s nothing better than answering a question correctly.

Simple, and easy to understand!

Here are some negative prefixes to keep an eye out for on your next multiple choice test.  In each case, the negative prefix changes the meaning of the word to its opposite.

Negative prefixes

  • Im – Impossible means not possible.
  • Ir – Irresponsible means not responsible.
  • Un – Unnecessary means not necessary.
  • Dis – Disabled means not able.
  • Non – Nonalcoholic means not alcoholic.
  • In – Inappropriate means not appropriate
  • Il – Illegal means not legal.

Now if we come back to our question of multiple negatives, what happens when we combine a negative prefix word, with another negative, like “not”?  Let’s have a look:

Double Negatives

  • Not unnecesary = necessary
  • Not nonalcoholic = alcoholic
  • Not inappropriate = appropriate
  • Not impossible = possible
  • Not illegal = legal
  • Not irresponsible = responsible
  • Not disabled = able

The principle here, as mentioned above, is that double negatives cancel each other out. Once you spy the negatives in the multiple choice question, you can rewrite the sentence into something that makes sense and is easier to answer.

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