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We were learning about negative sentences and this came up:

He is not so stupid that he cannot understand the song.

My teacher said that this meant he couldn't understand the song, but not because he was stupid. Something about 'that' implying an actual outcome?? But can't it be just that the speaker is saying he is not so stupid as not to understand the song

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    It is borderline ambiguous, but I would take it to mean that he may be stupid, but not that stupid. I would say your teacher is wrong. (It's not a "double negative", in the usual sense.) – Hot Licks Dec 1 '16 at 3:19
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    If it was a positive sentence the meaning would be clear. "He is so stupid that he cannot understand the song" means that his level of stupidity makes him incapable of understanding the song. Making the sentence negative reverses the meaning. "He is not so stupid that he cannot understand the song" means that, although he is stupid, his level of stupidity does not prevent him from understanding the song. So he can understand the song. I'm afraid that your teacher has got it wrong this time. – BoldBen Dec 1 '16 at 5:21
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    When I saw the question title, I immediately thought of Carly Simon.    :-)    ⁠ – Scott Dec 1 '16 at 7:24
  • @Scott I thought of The Incredible String Band. "Oh You know all the words and you sang all the notes but you never quite learned the song..." – BoldBen Dec 1 '16 at 15:12
  • @BoldBen: Wow, this is getting deep.  Perhaps we should adjourn to Philosophy.SE.    :-)    ⁠ – Scott Dec 1 '16 at 20:38
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The short answer: yes, he was able to understand the song.

Your teacher is partly right (and wrong in her conclusion) here; there is indeed an implied meaning, but her analysis is back-to-front. I interpret the line:

He is not so stupid that he cannot understand the song.

in the following manner:

It might be true that he is relatively stupid, but he is not so stupid that he cannot understand the song.

The point is that he would need to be even more stupid than he currently is, in order to not understand the song. I.e., he passes the minimum required level of understanding.

The mistake your teacher appears to have made is interpreting each part of the sentence in isolation:

he is not so stupid (meaning that he has some basic level of intelligence)

and

he cannot understand the song (meaning that his understanding is flawed)

However, you are correct that the use of that as a comparison with an adjective and an outcome changes the interpretation of the sentence:

  • He was so ____ that ____.

Examples include:

  • He was so tired that he fell asleep right away.
  • He has so happy that he didn't notice it was raining outside.

The negation makes your original sentence a little more complex to break down, but it's still just a situation leading directly to a consequence. See this resource for a more in-depth grammatical look at that.

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Your teacher is wrong. "He is not so stupid that he can't understand the song" is the sort of a line that you might expect to hear in response to somebody saying that some guy is too dumb to understand the song. It's the sort of a thing that you might say in defense of somebody when somebody else is suggesting that they're too dumb to figure something out.

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It depends.

Emphasis is not clear in written text, and different emphasis gives the sentence different meanings.

He is not so stupid that he cannot understand the song.

This might be said when the song is in a language he does not understand. It implies that he is not stupid, but still does not understand the song.

He is not so stupid that he cannot understand the song.

This might be said when he is stupid, but still manages to understand the song.

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