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Have a look at the following sentence –

He couldn't have had a more encouraging opening in films than our grown-up make-up boy had. On the contrary he must have had to face more uncertain and difficult times, for when he began his career,…

I would like to know if that sentence means that the subject "He" had a better encouraging opening in films than the "make-up boy", or if "He" had the same opening in the films as the "make-up boy" had? Or could it mean both, depending on the circumstances?

The reason I'm confused is that I have seen the sentence being used for both meanings.

(I have attached an image of the paragraph in which the main sentence is there)

Original Parah

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    Your second example meaning is wrong. Try replacing your "couldn't have had" with "it was not possible to have had"
    – Jim
    Feb 10, 2018 at 7:20
  • Thank you Jim! So, then my second sentence is grammatically wrong completely? or is it still justifiable in some way? I will edit the sentence in the case. Also, what about the first question I asked at the starting? Feb 10, 2018 at 7:31
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    No, it's grammatical, it just doesn't mean what you thought it meant.
    – Jim
    Feb 10, 2018 at 7:35
  • OK, Thanks for telling. I will change the sentence maybe. Feb 10, 2018 at 7:43

3 Answers 3

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I do find the sentence confusing, too.

How I normally would expect this construction to be used is like this:

Our hero couldn't have had a better start in life.

Which simply means that our hero had a better start in life than anyone else - or simpler: our hero had a great start in life.

In this case, the construction is comparing two characters in the narrative, though, where Subbu had a better start in films than our make-up boy.

I would have expected that to be something like

Our grown-up make-up boy's opening in films was nowhere as encouraging as Subbu's.

The construction as used in the text seems to want to convey the meaning that Subbu couldn't have had a more encouraging opening in films and that our make-up boy did not have such an encouraging opening.

I feel that by combining those two parts in one sentence as happened in the text drops some essential information.

I would have gone for the slightly longer:

Unlike our grown-up make-up boy, Subbu couldn't have had a more encouraging opening in films.


After re-reading the text, I think I am justified in finding the sentence confusing...

The next sentence (on the contrary...) forces me to re-interpret the original sentence in a different, more literal way:

It can not be true that Subbu had a better start than our grown-up make-up boy.

In other words, the author may want to tell us that is Subbu is doing well, it is not because he had a better start than the make-up boy.

It is a bit challenging to figure out from this excerpt what message the author wants to convey. At first I thought he wanted to sing the praise of the make-up boy by explaining how he worked his way up even though other, privileged, people had an easier start in their career.
On second reading, the author may actually be explaining that Subbu, although he was born privileged, actually didn't have a flying start in the movie industry, but worked his way up the hard way, just like the make-up boy.

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  • Thanks, Oerkelens! Your answer really helped. But I have another thing to explore the question though. If the writer said that 'Subbu had better start in films than the makeup boy' then why would he say in the following line that "On the contrary, he must have had to face more uncertain and difficult times for when he started his career there were no firmly established film producing companies or studios" Doesn't this line make the previous line seem to mean the opposite of what you described? Feb 19, 2018 at 10:03
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    @RohitShekhawat That is a very good point, I added another interpretation to my answer
    – oerkelens
    Feb 19, 2018 at 12:01
  • Yes, your new logic seems most correct to me. So, can we now say that - “couldn't have had a more encouraging XYZ than…” 'IS' ambiguous? Feb 20, 2018 at 8:22
  • I think you missed my previous comment, so just a reminder :) Feb 23, 2018 at 4:08
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    @RohitShekhawat I would certainly say that - but I wouldn't dare to speak for all English speakers...
    – oerkelens
    Feb 23, 2018 at 9:35
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I think what's strange about this passage is that they're using wording that is normally idiomatic—couldn't have had a better ~—but they're not using it idiomatically. It seems what they really mean is that it isn't possible (or at least, is highly unlikely) that Subbu had a more encouraging start than the grown make-up boy had. And again in the later sentence, that it isn't possible Subbu had the better education of the two.

But we're used to the idiomatic use, where couldn't have had a better really means had the best, so we look for that meaning here. And it's not there. What's there is just the literal meaning of the words.

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  • Thanks, Spoko! That answer of yours had a really good point, which I have understood, thanks to you. So, can we say that - “couldn't have had a more encouraging XYZ than…” 'IS' ambiguous? Feb 20, 2018 at 8:26
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    Well, what it is is a typical example of the figure of speech called Litotes. These constructions are always a bit ambiguous, I guess, in that they can either be taken literally or taken as the figure of speech. I think the careful writer would avoid using them literally, because it causes just this sort of confusion.
    – spoko
    Feb 20, 2018 at 11:33
  • I see litotes are really interesting :) Feb 21, 2018 at 7:26
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The adult make-up artist blames the younger make-up artist, Kothamangalam Subbu, for all his misfortunes (woes), yet the older man's career could not have enjoyed a better flying start.

In other words, "he" experienced little hardship–which I imagine refer to bouts of unemployment–because he had the fortune of being born in the Brahmin caste, which meant he was exposed to a wealthier class of people.

Wikipedia states

The Pali Canon depicts Brahmins as the most prestigious and elite non-Buddhist figures. They mention them parading their learning. The Pali Canon and other Buddhist texts such as the Jataka Tales also record the livelihood of Brahmins to have included being farmers, handicraft workers and artisans such as carpentry and architecture

Addendum

The extract is confusing because it is not clear who "our grown-up make-up boy" is. In the line

He couldn't have had a more encouraging opening in films than our grown-up make-up boy had.

Is the noun phrase in bold referring to Kothamangalam Subbu or to the other person working in the same Gemini film studios? But if Sabbu was No.2 it was he who had the powerful and influential role, which means he must have been born in the Brahim caste. It is the make-up artist (presumably a young man but it's unclear from the text) who blames his personal misfortunes on Kothamangalam Subbu. However, when Sabbu first started in the Indian film industry, there were fewer movie studios and production companies than today, finding regular work should have proved to have been an enormous challenge, but his privileged caste opened doors for him.

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  • Thanks Mari-Lou! I got your point but there is an argument I want to make,If the writer said that 'Subbu had better start in films than the makeup boy' then why would he say in the following line that "On the contrary, he must have had to face more uncertain and difficult times for when he started his career there were no firmly established film producing companies or studios" Doesn't this line make the previous line seem to mean the opposite of what you described? (I have asked the same question in the other answer's comment as well) Feb 19, 2018 at 10:34
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    @RohitShekhawat in fact, that bit did confuse me for a while but then I realized it was his caste that allowed him this huge advantage in his career choice, even if the movie industry was not as well established as it is today, his caste opened doors for him. That is my understanding from the passage.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 19, 2018 at 10:38

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