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In the 2018 ICSE Boards, this question was asked -

Anil is too fast a runner to not come first in the race. (Convert to so...that)

I wrote a sentence using a double negative.

Anil is so fast a runner that he cannot not come first in the race.

My friends wrote -

Anil is so fast a runner that he will come first in the race.

Which one is grammatically more appropriate and why ?

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  • Double negatives in English sometimes lead to confusion in the ears of the listener – Henry Feb 26 '18 at 9:04
  • 'Which one is grammatically more appropriate and why ?' is loaded. 'Which one is better and why ?' is sensibly addressed by @Henry. Personally, I'd consider ICSE's original clumsy, and the whole question grades into modality and probability assessment, when it's probably supposed to be merely testing adroitness with grammar. Any natural speaker would use something like 'Amil's so fast he's certain to win' or 'Amil's so fast he's bound to win unless he trips up'. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 26 '18 at 9:27
  • So, grammatically, both are correct ? – Parth Feb 26 '18 at 9:51
  • The double negative is certainly not a normal way of expressing it. If you must go with a negative in that section, something like "... that he cannot fail to come first" would be slightly less confusing. – Hellion Feb 26 '18 at 14:17
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Anil is too fast a runner to not come first in the race.

This is a split infinitive. Some native speakers will tell you that it is incorrect to begin with, but they are mistaken. This is a perfectly valid construction. However, when we transpose it into so... that form, we must be careful with the "not."

Anil is so fast a runner that he cannot not come first in the race.

This is somewhat grammatical, but many native speakers will have difficulty parsing the double negative. In general, you should avoid using double negatives like this.

Anil is so fast a runner that he will come first in the race.

Removing the double negative outright is a valid approach, though we do need to add a "will" to convert into future tense. This is idiomatic English. However, the connotations are slightly different. The original sentence connotes a prediction ("I expect Anil to win"), while this sentence connotes a fact ("I know that Anil will win").

Anil is so fast a runner that he will surely come first in the race.

This is another grammatical option. The "surely" connotes a prediction, just like the original.

Anil is so fast a runner that he cannot help coming first in the race.

Anil is so fast a runner that he cannot help but come first in the race.

Here, we convert the extra negation to a more idiomatic "cannot help..." expression. In this context, "help" roughly means "avoid." So this connotes that Anil is forced to win the race. That probably isn't the best way to express it, though, because it suggests that Anil does not want to win.

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I'm also an ICSE student and I feel the question is wrong somehow. It makes no sense at all, But I've written : Anil is so fast a runner that he would win the race. Most of my classmates were divided in their opinions and for the time being, we can only wait.

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    Sadly, Jagruti, we often get questions on ELU where we'd like to answer "Throw the book / question paper away." – Edwin Ashworth Feb 26 '18 at 17:43
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This can be written in two forms

  1. Anil is so fast a runner that he cannot but win the race
  2. Anil is so fast a runner that he will surely win the race.

What your friends wrote are also not wrong

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First of all, I understand this is an exercise in English, but there is nothing wrong with the sentence you are starting out with:

Anil is too fast a runner to not come first in the race.

This isn't really what we would call a "double negative". It is a perfectly coherent sentence, and similarly phrased sentences are often used, usually in response to a contrary opinion, ie if someone said that they didn't think Anil would come first.

The kind of double-negative that is unacceptable is where the statement is unbalanced and the meaning is obscured, for example "I never did nothing to nobody", which is plainly incorrect and redundant.

So, returning to your real question - the details of the original statement are that:

  • Anil is a very fast runner
  • You believe he will come first

So if you were looking to simply state this using as few words as possible and avoiding the so-called "double-negative" of the original statement, the most succinct statement would be the one written by your friends:

Anil is so fast a runner that he will come first in the race.

This makes the two points above, and is grammatically correct. However, some of the meaning of the original statement is lost. Originally there was a sense of belief that surely he will win, given his speed - but now in this shortened sentence it is being put across as an absolute certainty, but nobody can really say for sure that he will win, and so now the statement seems a little arrogant.

Your sentence does not scan correctly because technically you are repeating the word "not":

Anil is so fast a runner that he cannot not come first in the race.

If anything, this is more of a double negative that the original statement! Some English speakers may attempt to say such a sentence, pausing and emphasising the second "not", but you can't really get away with it in written English.

I would suggest:

Anil is so fast a runner that he cannot fail to come first in the race.

This reads better than your suggestion, and carries the same belief that he will win. I wouldn't call "cannot fail" a double negative, but technically the two words do cancel each other out because you could just say "win" instead of "didn't fail".

If the goal is really to eliminate all double-negatives, grammatical or otherwise, then you could say:

Anil is so fast a runner he surely must come first in the race.
or
Anil is so fast a runner I believe he will come first in the race

I believe these most accurately convey both the facts and the implied meaning of the original sentence.

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