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If you're at the wrong place at the wrong time, is this actually a bad thing? Don't the two negatives words result in a positive meaning? For instance, being at the wrong place at the right time wouldn't be good, and being at the right place at the wrong time, that too would have a negative result.

As I see it, being at the wrong place, at the wrong time, could result in the second negative cancelling out the first negative and therefore the phrase doesn't necessarily have a negative meaning, am I correct?

As an example, take a sales appointment. You go to the right place at the right time, that's good, you've got there OK. However you go the right place at the wrong time, and that's not good as you aren't expected, and if you go the wrong place at the right time, well, you've missed your appointment. Go the wrong place at the right time, doesn't mean you've missed the appointment though does it? It doesn't mean that you didn't get to the appointment.

Is this correct? Although it's generally seen as a negative phrase, it could be used positively? What would be the full implication of this, as all definitions I've seen give this phrase a completely negative meaning and don't take this into account.

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    Place and time are orthogonal concepts. So the second "wrong"does not negate the first. (Two wrongs don't make a right? :) – Spencer Oct 18 '16 at 11:38
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    Your question is based on false premises. Negatives don't cancel when added only when multiplied. Say you spent 10$ and then 5$, try -10+-5 in a calculator you'll get -15. It the same in language, generally "and" replaces an addition in logic, for example "the question is built on false premises and contains a typo (in your last example)" that's two negative that add up, not cancel out. – P. O. Oct 18 '16 at 11:38
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    Being in a minefield under enemy fire ain't too good. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 18 '16 at 12:09
  • Because the phrase in question is an idiom, and does not have to make proper grammatical sense, I would think this question should be in ELL. – Corvus B Oct 18 '16 at 13:41
  • Is "wrong" a grammatical negative? It seems like that would be a primary requisite for the double negative rule to even be applicable. – Tonepoet Oct 18 '16 at 14:28
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I agree in this context with Spencer's comment that place and time are orthogonal concepts; however, this mathematical concept may be out of scope of an ELU discussion (I may be wrong though).

Let's start with a dictionary definition.

Cambridge Dictionary:

in the wrong place at the wrong time
in a situation where something bad happens to you because you are unlucky, not because you do anything wrong:
A storm can come up, and if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, you could get hurt.

The idiomatic definition is that someone in such a situation just got unlucky and this proves that your assumption is wrong.

Now, let's try to decompose it literally using an example of a cat wanting to take a nap. If the cat chooses a fireplace to do so, it is a wrong place in general; however, it may not be so when there is no fire therein and it is at near room temperature. Now, suppose someone decides to light up a fire there (and is somehow oblivious of the cat's presence). Lo and behold, it now also becomes the wrong time! Now, both negatives add up to more negative!

Also, consider the example accompanying the definition above: it mentions that one can get hurt if they are at the wrong place (at a place through which the eye of the storm passes) at the wrong time (when it does so).

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Idioms are not logical. They are chunks of words that when found together in the proper order have an accepted meaning adopted by consensus.

Being in the wrong place at the wrong time is always a bad thing.

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The simplest way to put I believe is this;

The RIGHT place at the RIGHT time = I was in the GARDEN WHEN my crush passed by = +1+1=2 = POSITIVE

The RIGHT place at the WRONG time = I was in the GARDEN AFTER my crush had left = +1-1=0 = NEGATIVE

The WRONG place at the RIGHT time = I was still in the BUILDING when my crush WOULD BE in the garden = -1+1=0 = NEGATIVE

The WRONG place at the WRONG time = I was in the BUILDING WHEN my crush was giving out roses in the garden. = -1-1=-2 = VERY NEGATIVE*

the idea is that just as right place right time emphasizes that multiple factors were involved in your GOOD luck (time and place being two factors), wrong place wrong time emphasizes that multiple factors were involved in your BAD luck. You would not say i was in the right place at the right time when i was involved in a car crash for instance.

*in reply to your comment I tried a different example to illustrate my meaning better :) the point is not that the building itself is the negative, but that within this situation it is negative i.e. the building is only negative because it is not where the good thing is happening.

  • I like your way of thinking, but I don't believe your examples are consistent. The first 3 are in line with my thinking, but the last one - you are in the WRONG place : in the third example you established that the WRONG place was the BUILDING. Therefore the building should be used in the last example as this also uses the WRONG place. If you are in the BUILDING (wrong place) when the swarm of bees invaded the garden (wrong time) then the result is a positive result, you potentially avoided the disaster or the negative result, which supports my thinking. – Tomy-rex Oct 18 '16 at 20:09
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I think some confusion comes from your interpretation of wrong.

Being in the wrong place does, in this expression, not mean that you are not in the right place or the place where you wanted to be, but that you are in a place where you should not have been.

Sounds the same? Let's look at an example then:
Not being where you wanted to be is your appointment - you went to another place.
Being at a place where you didn't want to be: you went sailing, ended up in a storm and now you are in the water, drowning. Your main problem is not that you are not in any specific place where you had planned to be, your main problem is that you are in a place where you certainly do not want to be.

The same goes for the wrong time. You are not an hour late, but you arrived at a time that something bad happened.

So the two negatives do not make a positive. If I am in the sea, drowning (wrong place), it doesn't get any better if that happens when a local group of sharks happens to be passing by (wrong time).

It's not like being at the wrong place gets in any way mitigated by being there at the wring time, it actually makes things even worse.

protected by Andrew Leach Sep 11 '17 at 12:12

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