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What is the meaning of "nothing could be less like ..." structure? Sometimes I see it with a "than", and other times without "than".

Say this example -

Nothing could be less like A

If we go by the literal meaning, it means to me that everything is similar to A. Am I right?

Nothing could be less like A than B

Here also it means that everything is similar to A, instead of B

Am I right on the assumption? If not please tell me the meaning and explain how it comes, because if literal meaning is accepted, the meaning I suggested above is going to be true. Or is this construction an idiom?

  • So it's an idiom, and it doesn't follow the literal meaning, right? – Man_From_India May 13 '14 at 15:48
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    No, the idiom is precise. It does not mean that everything else is similar to A, it means that everything else is either more similar to A than B is or equally similar to A as B is. Nothing is less similar. – StoneyB on hiatus May 13 '14 at 17:38
  • @StoneyB I always have problems understanding such sort of constructions. I mean this explanation is clear, but if I get anything like such difficult construction I find it difficult to understand. How will I learn them? Any suggestion? And after that how will I come up with my own difficult construction like this. Any suggestion will be helpful. Please. Thanks a lot in advance. – Man_From_India Oct 2 '14 at 2:06
  • @StoneyB From other forum I got this - Parrots and penguins are both birds, but nothing could be less like a parrot than a penguin. While parrots have colorful feathers and fly gracefully from tree to tree, penguins are black and white, and waddle awkwardly on land, and are graceful only in the water. What does this line mean here? ..but nothing could be less like a parrot than a penguin. – Man_From_India Feb 13 '15 at 14:52
  • It is exaggerated, of course, but consider: 3 points of similarity to parrots are named: color, grace, and flight. A flamingo is colorful and graceful, and flies: 3 points, so it is very like a parrot. A magpie is graceful and flies, but is black and white: with 2 points, it is less like a parrot than a flamingo [is like a parrot]. A penguin has 0 points of similarity, so it is less like a parrot than either a flamingo or a magpie [is like a parrot]. And no bird can have fewer than 0 points of similarity, so no bird could be less like a parrot than a penguin [is like a parrot]. – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 13 '15 at 15:11
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Let's assume that all the things in this world are only these letters: A, B, C, ..., Z. Suppose that we want to write them as a list, sorted by likeness: the one that is more resembling to A will be placed closer to A.

How could we write our list? (Given that "Nothing could be less like A than B.")

Here is one way we can write it:

A C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z ........... B

I put extra spaces to make sure that B is really unlike A.

The list makes it clear that nothing (else in the list) is less like A than B. (Otherwise, it would be placed after B.) In other words, B is the one that is the most different from A.

So, I think, yes, you can understand it literally.
And if B is not explicitly mentioned, it should be clear in the context what B is.

(PS. Admittedly, I couldn't understand the sentence at first, and I needed to analyzed it myself too. So, I think a little diagramming helps. ;-)

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  • Hi...I have heard a lot about diagramming. Does it really help? Where from I can learn them? – Man_From_India May 14 '14 at 1:04
  • Perhaps the diagramming you are thinking of is something different, which is called "diagramming sentence", which some people wold find it useful. (You can find some useful links there.) My diagram (or the diagramming I mentioned) was just a quick sketch of how A and B would be arranged, which I used as an aid to understand the sentence. Nothing special. :-) – Damkerng T. May 14 '14 at 3:08
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In the first instance, the other object of comparison would be known outside this statement.

Bob: Look at this brand new B, nothing like A.

Kurt: Yeah, nothing could be less like A.

Alternatively:

Bob: Look at this new B I got, I wonder how it's like A.

Kurt: Nothing could be less like A then B.

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