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I still gravely struggle to understand sentences expressed in the negative.. For simplicity, I'll try to gloss each disjunct (separated by 'or') separately. Harper's the surname of the Canadian Prime Minister in 2015.

Source: A comment below, and NOT, the CBC news article by user Dennis Brady

[1.] Harper never met a good idea he wouldn't reject or [2.] a bad idea he wouldn't embrace.

1. => 1.1. Harper never met a good idea he would tolerate.

=> 1.2. Harper only allows bad ideas.

2. = Harper never met [first disjunct removed] a bad idea he wouldn't embrace

=> 2.1. Harper never met a bad idea he would overlook

=> 2.2. Harper only embraces bad ideas.

My question Q1. Are my above decompositions perfectly right?

Q2. How can I quicken my understanding of negative sentences, so that I can progress beyond composing all these steps laboriously? Over the past few months, I've failed to accelerate and only slowed.

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    Not quite. a rephrase might be: Harper has been known to reject good ideas and embrace bad ones. – Jim Jan 20 '15 at 3:47
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    You could try to rephrase the statement into something simpler that is easier to imagine. Perhaps "He has never met a kitten he wouldn't kick or a mongrel he wouldn't hug." In this statement he doesn't favor kittens but does favor filthy dogs. If you try to keep the positivity/negativity of the words and the context in mind (in this case someone mocking Harper) then it can help sort things out. It's not always going to work, and I know you're interested in legal texts often, where specific meaning is important, but it might give you some insight. – Jason Patterson Jan 20 '15 at 4:05
  • Part of what makes the comment work is the negative twist. It starts off normal "He never met a <> idea he didn't like" but the 'bad' being substituted for good is what makes it funny. The reversal in the second is an echo. – Affable Geek Jan 30 '15 at 21:01
  • It's worth noting that "never met an X he wouldn't Y" is something of an idiom or stock phrase, which is why it's hard to phrase differently and still keep the exact same meaning. – stangdon Jan 30 '15 at 21:19
  • @AffableGeek Sorry, I don't understand. What's the negative twist? How does the 'bad' being substituted for good is what makes it funny ? – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Jan 30 '15 at 22:14
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Almost perfect, yes. I would quibble that overlook is not a good substitute for wouldn't embrace. I'd recommend reject as a better antonym of embrace.

I'm not sure what would speed up your comprehension. Have you tried factoring? Usually in English, double negatives effectively cancel out. (This is an approximative thing.) So:

Harper never met a good idea he wouldn't reject

becomes

Harper [...] met a good idea he would [...] reject

It's not a complete sentence (and the non-negative version of never is ever, but it kind of conveys the sense: it's saying that Harper [when he] ever met a good idea he would reject [it] which is the upshot of the negative version.

Likewise

Harper never met a bad idea he wouldn't embrace

becomes

Harper [...] met a bad idea he would [...] embrace

Which, yes, it's saying Harper [when he ever] met a bad idea he would embrace [it].

  • Your rephrasing: "Harper [when he] ever met a good idea he would reject [it]" says that he habitually rejects them- i.e., always. But the original conveys more possibility than certainty. The sentence, "I never met a man I wouldn't take to dinner" does not mean that I've taken every man I've met to dinner, but that with every man I've met there exists the possibility that I might take him to dinner if the occasion arose. – Jim Jan 20 '15 at 4:42
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    @Jim, I couldn't disagree more. I have no idea where you're getting this "mere possibility" reading. The literal meaning of "never met a bad idea he wouldn't embrace" is, in fact, that he always embraces every bad idea he meets. It is hyperbole in use, but that is in fact what it is saying. – Codeswitcher Jan 20 '15 at 4:45
  • It's the use of would to indicate possibility. If we were discussing restaurants and I said, "I would eat there." Doesn't that mean that the restaurant currently being discussed is a possibility, but does not mean that we are definitely going to that one. There may be many restaurants I would eat at, but we're only going to choose one. – Jim Jan 20 '15 at 4:52
  • If you replace wouldn't with didn't then we get the meaning you are ascribing: Harper never met a good idea he didn't reject." – Jim Jan 20 '15 at 4:55
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    @Jim Ah! I see what you are saying, but I still think you're mistaken. The sentence is firmly in the past tense, and as such is not discussing something that might or might not happen: it's describing things that did happen. – Codeswitcher Jan 20 '15 at 4:58
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The OP's difficulty construing the sentence arises, I think, from the fact that the original quotation mangles the collocation by using a modal wouldn't where did not is expected (or some past tense formulation).

Harper never met a good idea he wouldn't reject or a bad idea he wouldn't embrace.

Harper never met a good idea he did not reject, or a bad idea he did not embrace.

Never did not reject = always rejected

Never did not embrace = always embraced

Harper always rejected a good idea.

Harped always embraced a bad idea.

An alternative that remains closer to the modal would be:

Harper never met a good idea he was not willing to reject, or a bad idea he was not willing to embrace.

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While you could rephrase in order to remove a double negative, doing so would remove much of the humor and with from the quote.

The Comedian Will Rogers had a saying that has entered into that realm of quotable phrase. He would often say:

I've never meta man I didn't like.

That phrase is almost expected to be finished in similar fashion - I never met an ice cream cone I didn't like, etc... And so, it catches the ear when there is a twist.

In the case of PM Harper,

[he] never met a good idea he wouldn't reject or [2.] a bad idea he wouldn't embrace.

it begins like the idiom, never met a good idea ... and you'd expect it to be "Never met a good idea he didn't like." But the clever part is to reverse it unexpectedly - He never met a good idea that he wouldn't embrace. In other words, the speaker is making a very cutting remark - Harper is so bad that he can't accept good ideas.

And, just in case the speaker didn't catch the clever turn, the idiom is reversed, but has the same punch - Harper embraces all the bad ideas.

It's actually a very clever cutting remark, because it starts with an expected construction, and twists it to paint the subject in a bad light.

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