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From http://www.debate.org/debates/School-uniforms-ought-to-be-worn-in-primary-and-secondary-schools./1/:

For many of these, the reason for wearing a uniform is clear: so that they are easily recognizable. In a hospital, for example, it would not do to confuse the nurses with the patients.

What did the author mean by "it would not do"? Can anyone parse this sentence please? Or is it a typo?

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The "it would not do" part is fine -- but the "confuse the nurses with the patients" part is ambiguous. – Jerry Coffin Mar 13 '11 at 5:46
@Jerry: I found the phrase perfectly clear. Why is it ambiguous? – MrHen Mar 18 '11 at 21:26
@MrHen: It could refer to either a nurse being confused for a patient, or a nurse being confused by a patient. – Jerry Coffin Mar 20 '11 at 3:06
@Jerry: Ah, yes, now I see. Thanks! – MrHen Mar 21 '11 at 14:52
up vote 7 down vote accepted

This sentence is fine as it stands: "it would not do" means something like "it would not be a good thing to have happen" here.

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Does this phrase sound oral or just fine in written English? – trVoldemort Mar 12 '11 at 13:37
@trVoldemort: It is fine in written English. – Kosmonaut Mar 12 '11 at 13:58
It's fallen out of common usage in spoken English and would sound affected unless you roll like that. – intuited Mar 13 '11 at 3:43

It means it would be wrong or it would be undesirable

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In this usage, "it would not do" is perfectly valid and indicates that the following expression is undesirable, as in "this will not do at all".

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It is an idiom, meaning "it would not be appropriate".

OED, s.v. "do", v; 20.a. "To ‘work’, ‘act’, operate, or turn out (in some way); to do what is wanted; to succeed, answer, or serve; to be fitting or appropriate; to suffice. that will do (that'll do): that is sufficient."

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(+1) I'd add that this phrase does sound rather dated now in spoken English. It sounds like the vocabulary of a character in an Agatha Christie or PG Wodehouse country house novel, rather than contemporary British English. "Come come, old chap, it simply would not do!" – onestop Mar 12 '11 at 21:24

I'm sure you're familiar with that use of "do", you just haven't thought about it before. Consider the following:

  • Person 1: Have you got a pencil?
  • Person 2: No, I got a felt-fit pen, though.
  • Person 1: That will do.
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"It would not do" generally goes further than the opposite of "that will do" and means something would be inappropriate, disrespectful or improper. – MrHen Mar 18 '11 at 21:28

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