Imagine a picture puzzle.... It comes in a box filled with hundreds of pieces. When assembled, it may depict a landscape, perhaps, with large swatches of blue sea and blue sky. Imagine my mind is like one of those picture puzzles, and so is yours. I take one of those blue puzzle pieces, give it to you, and declare, “Here's a bit of the picture in my mind. I give it to you so you can see the picture I see.”

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Inigo Montoya

This is not about not

Think about the word ‘not’.

It's compact and concise. Just three letters, one syllable. It certainly seems simple enough. It negates, it inverts, it turns an idea upside down, or ... not?

The word ‘not’ is another piece that fits very different puzzles. In the realm of formal logic, computer science, rhetoric, and debate, for example, there the word ‘not’ is a strong, powerful tool. It transforms the meaning of anything and everything in its path. We learn to think—and to speak and to write—in terms such as, “This thing is true. That other thing is not true.”

For people who think and speak and write in terms of formal logic, for people who keep a formal logic puzzle in their minds, the word ‘not’ is a puzzle piece that transforms every piece attached to it. It transforms the puzzle itself.

But for other readers and listeners who may have other picture puzzles in mind, the word ‘not’ can be surprisingly weak and unhelpful at times. Like a hamster harnessed to a boxcar, the hamster may be too weak to pull the boxcar and too small even to be noticed standing next to it. Those pieces may be assembled as a picture puzzle labeled “hamster pulling boxcar”, but many folks will see only the boxcar.


This sentence is not about a boxcar. It is not related to boxcars in any way. Believe me when I tell you, “This paragraph is not about boxcars.” Really! I insist! Boxcars are not relevant here!

So....what is that paragraph about? Formal logic requires that we look for an invisible hamster. An ardent mathemetician who practices formal logic could say that paragraph is about everything in the universe except boxcars, including hamsters (both visible and invisible), as well as aardvarks, baseball, cream cheese, dust mites, and every alphabetized noun through Zen monk. Just remember, no boxcars allowed.

How often does that method actually work? Two mathematicians who share a frame of reference involving formal logic might communicate that way. Computer scientists might communicate that way, and even understand each other. Debate teams could launch any argument from that “not boxcar” frame. But most of the time, with an anonymous audience of unknown background, does that paragraph depict a picture of anything other than a boxcar?

Not likely. Try it sometime. Actually, if we think about it, many of us have tried it already, and many of us have been puzzled by our difficulty conveying our meaning that way. Neither emphasis nor insistence add clarity. Repetition makes the situation worse. The darn boxcars just get BIGGER in the reader or listener's mind.

With any frame of mind other than formal logic, that paragraph was about boxcars. Sprinkling the tiny one-syllable ‘not’ throughout has little effect. If that paragraph was not about boxcars, then it was about nothing at all.

How many times have you heard or read comments like these:

“Please don't take this personally, but...”


“I'm not here to shoot down your idea, but ...”

Ouch! If someone shoots down my idea that way, I suspect I will take it personally. After all, I was practically commanded to do so. Those supposedly soothing prefaces actually put me on edge, on guard, expecting the worst. Rather than ease my likely reaction, they set me up to react with extra vehemence. My mind doesn't react to the little hamster words, it reacts to the big boxcar concepts. How about you?

In the future, let's not rely on the word ‘not’.

Oops!   ummmmm ...

In the future, let's just focus on the boxcar.

Does this make sense to you?

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The concept, “this is not a boxcar”, was inspired by George Lakoff's book, Don't Think of an Elephant.

Lakoff's four key concepts of frames can be found in his Elephant book as well as the web site of the Rockridge Institute. See also Metaphors We Live By.

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