ROn Point: A Not Insignificant Post on Double Negatives

Double negatives can often intimidate and confuse students on the GMAT. Let’s review some strategies to help you not dislike double negatives so much. Hopefully you don’t feel incapable of navigating these questions already, but if you do, here are some strategies to ensure that you don’t feel uneasy when faced with one on test day.

See what I didn’t not do there?

Double negatives can be found throughout the verbal and Integrated Reasoning sections, and even on some particularly confusing math questions (I’m looking at you, Data Sufficiency). There are two basic reasons for this: changing thought direction and exacerbating mental fatigue.

Looking at a simple example, let’s examine the difference in meaning between:

“The amount was significant” and “The amount was not insignificant”

For the most part, these sentences are tantamount to one another. There may be some small nuanced differences between the two, but the essential meaning of both is the same: “We’re talking about big numbers here.”

When reading the first statement, your train of thought is straight forward. The amount was big. When reading the second statement, and more so on longer, convoluted examples, you’re seeing the first negation followed by the second negation, which your brain must then logic out to (not insignificant) significant. This is an extra step that must be handled to arrive at the same conclusion, and thus it is no surprise that the GMAT sometimes adds in these extra hoops to jump through just to see who’s paying attention and who’s on auto-pilot.

To elaborate on that point, the verbal section is when students report feeling the most tired and mentally fatigued, which can be detrimental to avoiding these pitfalls. After being in the exam room for 2-3 hours and sifting through 50-60 questions it can become increasingly difficult to think clearly. Similarly, each convoluted double negative question takes that much more mental energy out of you for the next question, which might be a single negative or a dreaded triple negative question (no word yet on homerun negatives).

A particularly difficult application of this type of negation occurs in assumption questions, where the methodical strategy of negating each answer choice is the best strategy for success but can lead to some confusing statements. As an example, consider the following:


Joseph: Health insurance premiums are growing at an alarming rate. This is, in part, because many hospitals bill for unnecessary diagnostics and tests that inflate the subsequent amount that insurers pay out to them. These expenses are then passed on to consumers in the form of increased insurance premiums. Therefore, reducing the number of unnecessary tests performed by health care providers will be effective in controlling growing health insurance premiums.

Which of the following is an assumption required by the argument?

A.  Doctors are generally able to determine, with great reliability, which diagnostic procedures and tests would yield the most effective results

B.  Tests and diagnostic procedures do not make up an insignificant portion of the bills that are sent to insurers

C.  Insurance companies in other industries, such as auto and home, have been able to reduce costs by reducing the number of unnecessary repairs and replacements on claims for automobiles and homes

D.  Patients are not just as likely as doctors to choose the most expensive diagnostics and tests.

E.  Health insurance premiums have increased twice as fast in the past five years than they have over an average of the past 25 years.

Negating and then paraphrasing these succinctly, we would get:

A.  Doctors generally aren’t able to determine the best procedures

  • Paraphrase: These quacks are just guessing.
  • Conclusion: Nothing about cost. Incorrect.

B.  Tests and diagnostic procedures do not not make up an insignificant chunk of the bill (Drop the two “nots” before they tie you in knots)

  • Paraphrase: These are small numbers so their presence or absence doesn’t matter.
  • Conclusion: Correct. Joseph’s argument requires this assumption or else it falls apart quickly

C.  Other industries haven’t been able to reduce costs

  • Paraphrase: Other industries have had no savings doing something somewhat similar.
  • Conclusion: Repairs and replacements on cars are not the same as diagnostic tests to determine underlying causes on human beings. Out of scope on this question

D.  Patients are not as likely to choose expensive diagnostics and tests

  • Paraphrase: Doctors like to prescribe the most expensive treatment
  • Conclusion: Treatment is what you prescribe once you know the issue at hand. Out of scope on this question

E.  Health insurance premiums haven’t increased twice as fast…

  • Paraphrase: Premiums might be going up faster or be flat or decreasing. Or going up just a bit. Or oscillating between hot and cold. Or anything really.
  • Conclusion: Can’t say anything definitive here, and a good reminder to be weary of negating answers with quantifiable numbers. The negative of doubling is not halving, it is simply “not doubling”


The correct answer must be B, negating the double negative to become a triple (or single) negative, but perhaps confusing you so much you waste time needlessly on what was actually a much more straight forward question.

The best strategy to employ for these types of questions is to paraphrase them to something more streamlined and succinct.

  • “He could not bring himself to stay away” can be streamlined into “He went”
  • “I do not disagree” into “Yup”
  • “It is incorrect to deny that I feel love for you” into “You’re the bee’s knees, doll”
  • “I could not bring myself to not doze off during the unnaturally long screening of Tolkien’s non-LOTR adaptation in film” into “I fell asleep during the Hobbit”

Your paraphrases will probably be slightly different. For the mathematically inclined, a quick method is to think of these in math terms, where we know two negatives make a positive. (e.g. 3 – -3 = 6). Double negatives aren’t impossible, but understanding the underlying meaning of what’s being asked will steer you clear of trap answer choices and help you excel at the GMAT.

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Today we introduce a new occasional series called ROn Point from Ron Awad, a GMAT instructor for Veritas Prep based in Montreal, bringing you occasional tips and tricks for success on your exam.  After graduating from McGill and receiving his MBA from Concordia, Ron started teaching GMAT prep and his Veritas Prep students have given him rave reviews ever since.