What's the distinction between the following pairs of imperatives (ignoring efficacy)?

  • "Eat more vegetables" vs. "Eat less starch and fat"

  • "Look both ways before crossing the street" vs. "Don't get hit by a bus"

  • "Put your hands up" vs. "Don't put your hands down"

  • "Get enough sleep" vs. "Don't stay up all night"

  • "Use the toilet" vs. "Don't pee on my house"

  • "Vote for me" vs. "Don't vote for them"

  • "Hold it like this" vs. "Don't hold it like that"

  • "Feel good about yourself and move on" vs. "Don't beat yourself up"

  • "Take a long walk off a short pier" vs. "Stop badgering me"

'Urging/exhorting people towards' and 'don't deter them from' capture some of the sentiment but they fail to capture the distinction. If I was being meta-ironic, I'd say 'Don't exhort people towards, rather, deter them from'.

  • Well, in one sense you've set up "alternatives" . Most of your examples have an affirmative and contrasting negatives. Perhaps "Give affirmative guidance" and "avoid negative guidance"
    – Tom22
    Jan 29, 2018 at 22:22
  • @Tom22 The phrase "negative guidance" would more likely describe poor guidance - the concept of positive and negative reinforcement suffer the same confusion between common parlance psychology's usage. Similarly, affirmative guidance may seek to affirm the individual instead of stating actions that should be done.
    – user121330
    Jan 29, 2018 at 22:46
  • yes, I agree that 'negative guidance' isn't quite right .. I was reaching for the right word and haven't quite got it. Perhaps "advise people affirmatively" , "don't advise people admonishingly"
    – Tom22
    Jan 29, 2018 at 22:50
  • This is not an English usage question really. It's a style question.
    – Lambie
    Jan 29, 2018 at 23:13
  • @Lambie Nice usage of both. What would be the correct venue to ask this question?
    – user121330
    Jan 30, 2018 at 17:01

1 Answer 1


The difference is that one is stated in the affirmative vs. the negative.

I agree that it is not quite a question about English and more human psychology. There you will find that any statement that is meant to be remembered by an audience should not include a negative. Let's say it should be free from negatives.

The mind, it is found, will only remember the simplistic unmodified command. So in this case they will remember only to "Eat starch and fat"; "Get hit by a bus" "Put your hands down" "Stay up all night" Etc.

It does not make much sense but that is how it is.

  • I agree: a question about the efficacy of each statement would belong on a psychology stack exchange, but I asked for the name of the distinction. Perhaps your focus on the efficacy of the statements is meta because I asked answers to ignore efficacy?
    – user121330
    Jan 30, 2018 at 18:32
  • If an answer has no supporting sources, it is opinion, not a valid answer. Consider rewriting this.
    – J. Taylor
    Jan 30, 2018 at 18:48

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