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I'm a learner of English, and I got this sentence from a dating book which I find difficult to understand:

We know a man who was horribly disfigured by fire who has a constant stream of women in his life, who would never dream of thinking of himself as sexually inadequate.

The word never is a negative word and inadequate also has a negative meaning. There are two ways I can understand this sentence:

(1) Negative plus negative gives positive (my Chinese grammar), so the sentence means the same as

He would dream of thinking of himself as sexually adequate.

(2) Double negative strengthens the negation, so the sentence means the same as

He would dream of thinking of himself as sexually inadequate

or

He would never dream of thinking of himself as sexually adequate.

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7 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Your option #1 is much closer to the intended meaning, but you haven't quite construed it correctly. The two negatives do indeed cancel each other out. But when you cancel out the word never the result is always, so the plain un-negated sentence would be something like

He always dreams of thinking of himself as sexually adequate.

However, this still misrepresents the meaning. This is because the idiom to never dream of carries a negative connotation, and when you un-negate the sentence you should take out that idiom entirely. So the plain meaning of the sentence is more like the following:

He always thinks of himself as sexually adequate.

Or, to put it more strongly:

He is confident in his sexual adequacy.

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OR that it is not an issue for him. –  JeffSahol Aug 5 '11 at 22:48
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I don't construe it as meaning he is knowingly confident in his sexual adequacy. Never Dream implies it is something he is not ever concerned with, i.e. self-doubt about his performance never even comes to mind for him. The critical distinction is He is confident in his sexual adequacy. Implies he thinks about it, whereas the original sentence implies it is not even a worry. –  Fake Name Aug 6 '11 at 5:46
    
@Fake Name Good explanation –  yozloy Sep 7 '11 at 8:35
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I'm unclear as to all the confusion.

Inadequate is an adjective. So surely the double negative thing isn't relevant. Adequate is the positive, and inadequate is the negative in much the same way that good is positive and bad is negative. They are adjectives.

If you substitued inadequate with bad you wouldn't be talking about double negation.

I think the meaning is clear … that the man would never consider himself as inadequate. So he considers himself as adequate. It's quite that simple.

He would never consider himself sexually bad would not get everyone talking about double negation, so why does the adjective inadequate?

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Well, that's because you are not a learner, for whom a positive statement is usually easier to understand and often less ambiguous, requiring less experience of tone and context to interpret. Compare "Sexually, he's not bad." and "Sexually, he's good." (2) is much clearer. In this case, a learner immediately parses inadequate as not adequate and this gives rise to a double negative and doubt about the meaning. –  z7sg Ѫ Aug 5 '11 at 23:16
    
@Alex I understand what you are talking about, grammatically you are right, I asked this question because my Chinese language grammar made me confused when I read something like this. I wish I could put this in a more decent grammar category –  yozloy Sep 7 '11 at 8:54
    
@z& thanks for explaining the reasons for me, the hardest thing is that you want learn new stuff, but you already have something old in your mind –  yozloy Sep 7 '11 at 8:55
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The simplest way to explain is to break down the sentence:

  • Original: "[He] would never dream of thinking of himself as sexually inadequate."
  • Simpler: "[He] would not ever dream of thinking of himself as sexually not adequate."

The two "not"s cancel each other out (disappear). Now let's replace "ever" with the similar "always" to make the sentence sound more natural.

  • Rewritten: "[He] would [always] dream of thinking of himself as sexually adequate."
  • Simpler: "[He] always thinks of himself as sexually adequate."
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Neither of your proposed interpretations are correct.

In this case the the negatives cancel each other out to make a strong positive statement. When you filter out the prose the meaning is something like this:

He knows he is sexually adequate.

If you would "never dream" something, you know that the opposite is true. You don't have to dream about it being different, you just know. If you would "never dream" about a negative thing it means the positive thing is quite certain in your mind.

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+1 for letting me know that it makes a strong positive statement –  yozloy Sep 7 '11 at 8:37
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"He would never dream of being sexually inadequate" is a stronger way of saying "He is of the opinion of being sexually adequate", especially in the light of him being "horribly disfigured". Look at that "never dream of" part as a figure of speech that should not be taken literally.

So the easier way of saying that sentence (without double negation) would be

We know a man who was horribly disfigured by fire who has constant stream of women in his life, who still is convinced of himself as being sexually adequate.

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+1 for pointing out it's a figure of speech, as a Learner of English language, sometimes I do think it literally dream. LoL –  yozloy Sep 7 '11 at 8:45
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The sentence means that he thinks he is sexually adequate.

The sentence itself reads strangely. It's very odd to have that many who's in one sentence. I would try to rewrite it in a more natural way, but I'm not coming up with a very good way without editing the sentence too much. Perhaps someone else can take a stab at this?

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I feel the same too, I thought the author intentional wrote this way –  yozloy Sep 7 '11 at 8:47
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The easiest way to explain the meaning of the sentence is to first simplify it (but retain the negatives for now), so the same sentence simplified:

I do not think I am sexually inadequate.

Imagine I ask you the following:

Do you think you are sexually inadequate?

And you answer:

No, I do not think I am sexually inadequate. I think I am sexually adequate.

Does this help you understand the meaning?

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Yes this is same as Chinese –  yozloy Sep 7 '11 at 8:43
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