By In Stuff

A Consensus on ‘If Not’

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“They came in numbers that were mammoth if not quite astronomical.”

—Number of people who rallied in “March for Science.” (Source: Wisconsin Gazette)

“The daughter, the wife and the son each have developing life narratives apart, if not wholly detached, from what is happening with the Mars simulation.”

— Book Review of “The Wanderers (Source: The Florida Times Union)

“But in the final months of the presidential campaign, the leader of the nation’s pre-eminent law enforcement agency shaped the contours, if not the outcome, of the presidential race by his handling of the Clinton and Trump-related investigations.”

— Story on James Comey (Source: The New York Times)

“Dog food is expensive, if not a ripoff.”

— Guy in front of me talking to the checkout person at Staples.

* * *

The time has come to reach a consensus. This thing has been bothering me for years, but in the last few months it has spun entirely out of control. With all the talk in the air about authenticity, about trust, about fake news, about communication gaps, I think it is time once and for all to settle this.

What the heck does “if not” mean?

It seems to me that, based on current usage, “if not” can mean two different things. Well, actually there are several smaller definitions. But the big problem are the two main definitions. The big problem is that those definitions are diametrically opposed.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “if not” as “perhaps even.”

I’m generally good with that definition, though I will say it’s kind of a copout. It’s pretty clear that “perhaps even” is a much stronger phrase than “if not.” Trade “if not” in the line from the Comey New York Times story above for “perhaps even” and see if the line reads at all the same.

It does not. The authors might have meant for it to mean “perhaps even,” but because they used “if not,” it is a hedge, it is an unclear term that actually can mean almost the exact opposite of “perhaps even.”

Take the the guy in front of me in the line at the Staples. Did he mean: “Dog food is expensive, perhaps even a ripoff?”

It’s possible, but I don’t think that WAS what he meant. Admittedly, I was only listening in quiet amazement to see how long the conversation would go on. The guy started talking about the price of dog food, and the woman scanning the items — a seemingly nice young woman who, remember, was working at Staples and not, say, PetSmart — said almost immediately that she did not have a dog. Really, it was like the first thing.

“Dog food is really expensive,” he said.

“I don’t have a dog,” she said.

You would think that this might stifle the direction of the conversation, but surprisingly it did not. The guy just kept talking, not only about the price of dog food but also of the improving quality of dog food. It used to be terrible and artificial. Now it’s natural and better for the dogs. And expensive. And so on. This more or less one-way conversation went on for, no exaggeration, five minutes.

And when it concluded — with the if-not proclamation — I took him to mean that dog food is expensive BUT NOT a ripoff. See, that’s a near opposite of “perhaps even.” He used “if not” the way I think at least 50% of people do, not as a lead-to-stronger possibilities but as a hard cutoff point.

“The lack of a peace treaty between the north and the south means the two nations are still technically at war, if not in direct contact.”

— The North-South Korea conflict (Source: Daily Caller)

“Cristiano Ronaldo jeers are understandable if not entirely fair, says Real Madrid Captain Sergio Ramos.”

— Headline: The Independent.

“Trump changes his tone, if not his policy, on Iran deal.”

— Headline: The Weekly Standard.

Each of these, if I am reading them correctly, is using “if not” as “but not.”

There are other “if not” minor definitions, including one that means something like “the second part of the clause is not clear yet.” That would fit a sentence like this: Mankind may someday have the technology to reach the far ends of the Solar System, if not beyond.

Or this:

“Certainly as we get to Infinity War there is a sense of climax, if not a conclusion.”

— Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige (Source: Uproxx).

I don’t think Feige knows yet if Infinity War will be the conclusion of things for the Avengers so he’s using “if not” in that “we shall see” sort of way.

 

Then there are those who use “if not” between two unrelated thoughts, such as, “She was funny, if not short.”

The problem with all of this is that “if not” has so many shades and meanings that I rarely know for sure what the author means. Sometimes I think I know, but I’m not sure. Other times I have no earthly clue. If I read something like this: “Dale Murphy was a great baseball player, if not a Hall of Famer” — I don’t know if the author is saying:

  1. “Dale Murphy was a great baseball player, perhaps even a Hall of Famer.”
  2. “Dale Murphy was a great baseball player, but not a Hall of Famer.”
  3. “Dale Murphy was a great baseball player, and maybe someday he will be a Hall of Famer.”
  4. “Dale Murphy is funny, if not short.”

 

We just need some agreement on this. I’m personally all for people not using the “if not” construction at all and just saying what they mean. Say “perhaps even.,” Say “but not.” Stop going in the middle and confusing the heck out of the rest of us.

But if we’re going to use it, let’s just pick a single definition and stick with it. There may be a few bigger, if not trickier, problems in America, if not the world, if not the universe, but those solutions seem to be elusive, if not impossible, and just fixing, if not eliminating, this one thing, might give us a little bit of much-needed clarity, if not world peace.

 

 

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42 Responses to A Consensus on ‘If Not’

  1. Ed Bartel says:

    This article was certainly long, if not entertaining.

  2. Keith K. says:

    Well, it was funny, if not short.

  3. Dan says:

    I think the most common use is when the author believes the second part, the part after the “if not.” But for sake of discussion and moving on, the author says it will do if the reader just accepts the first part. “Dale Murphy was a great player, if not a hall of famer.” That tells the reader that the author has somewhere an essay on Murphy being a hall of famer. However, if we can all accept that he’s a great player, we’ll spare the HOF discussion for now and go down a road that just needs us to agree he was great. Maybe some cool stories of greatness to follow. There would be no need for the “if not a hall of famer” half of the sentence if the author didn’t want to plant that seed in the reader’s mind, even though there is no need or time to develope the point. I hope this explanation is acceptable, if not brilliant.

  4. Daniel Stock says:

    The way I’m reading it the “If Not” acts as a sort of amplifier of either Positivity or Negativity. If the author is trying to say something positive about the subject, then then ‘if not’ turns into ‘perhaps even’. If the author is dubious about the subject, the ‘if not’ becomes ‘but not.

    I don’t know if this is 100% foolproof, but it’s a good start, if not a great one!

  5. Frog says:

    At least with “if not” there us legitimate openness to interpretation.

    More important to fix is the “couldn’t care less” / “could care less” shambles. One makes sense and the other is just illogical.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      Frog,

      Yes, yes, yes. “Could care less” means the exact opposite of what the speaker means. It would be like saying, “it’s hot out” when it’s cold.

  6. Most people now use it to mean “not quite”, which is close to but somewhat different than “perhaps even.”

  7. Richard says:

    The one that makes me crazy is “may have” to describe something that actually happened. As in: “James Harden may have scored 35 points but he missed the shot that would have won the game” when there was no “may have” about the 35 points.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      In that case, it’s mean to convey a certain diminishment of the accomplishment. “He scored 35 points, but so what?”

  8. Bryan says:

    It’s chosen at times to be intentionally ambiguous, settling on a single definition would just lead to people using a different turn of phrase. “What they did was unethical, if not criminal” or “I’m not saying they are a criminal” which both often mean “I desire the attention and/or traffic of stating I believe someone to be a criminal without running the risk of a lawsuit”.

    • Maz says:

      I had a comment all written out, but I see Bryan beat me to it.

      I’ll just add the point that the problem isn’t so much a matter of definition as of getting people to say exactly what they mean. Which, as you know, is never going to happen because ambiguity has always been a necessary social lubricant. For example, how would we ever flirt if we didn’t know how to both make and comprehend ambiguous statements?

      In the example above, ‘Dog food is expensive’ really REALLY means ‘I would like to go out with you,’ and ‘I don’t have a dog’ means ‘It’s never going to happen.’

  9. Rob Smith says:

    In the Grammar Wars, I don’t think most people have settled on the proper usage of there, they’re or their. So, it’s doubtful, if not impossible to resolve the issue raised here.

    • invitro says:

      Quite. And I wish people would spend a little time working on its/it’s. I see screw-ups with that one every day.

      • Marc Schneider says:

        That baffles me. But what drives me nuts is seeing people spell “ridiculous” with an “e” and “lose” as “loose.” My god, did these people not go to school at all?

        • invitro says:

          I see lose/loose every day too. But I can’t remember “ridiculouse” (I guess?) coming up. FWIW, probably not much, I attribute this stuff to the decline in book-reading. The way you learn grammar/spelling/vocabulary/etc is to read books, not so much school, especially for adults. Without reading, people write like they hear people talk on TV & in movies. Just my opinion…

  10. Mark Daniel says:

    It’s perhaps the one phrase were everybody uses it correctly. Everybody knows the words “if” and “not”, and everyone can spell those words also. On top of that, every single usage is ambiguous, so nobody is using it incorrectly. The phrase “if not” is perhaps a singular achievement of humankind.

  11. TS says:

    I will continue to read Joe Posnanski columns, perhaps even if he cites NY Times quotes. But doubtful.

  12. BobDD says:

    If Not rhymes with Whiff Snot.

  13. Luis says:

    It is very clear, if not obvious, that the meaning of “if not” is “perhaps even.”

    • Kevin Fitzgerald says:

      It’s close enough for me. The simplest, most easily understandable use is “His actions were unethical, if not illegal.” A good touchstone.

  14. Tom says:

    Joe, this article gets to the crux of the issue if not the heart of the matter.

  15. Kris says:

    Joe,

    I’ve often wondered, if not pondered , that instead of “if not”, people intend to say “as well as” if not “if not”.

  16. MikeN says:

    Why don’t people just say ifn’t?

  17. Richie says:

    A similar problem is “upwards of”.

    “The Dodgers should hit upwards of 100 home runs this year. ”

    Sometimes people seem to mean that the Dodgers will hit nearly 100 home runs.

    Other times they seem to mean over 100 home runs.

  18. Dan says:

    “if not quite”, used in the quote at the very top of the page, is interesting and quite clearly to me signals the speaker’s intention that it is “almost, but not X”. (Alternatively, they could be saying it is X, but only slightly X, not “*quite* X”…)

    FWIW, mankind (or humanity, for that matter) already has reached and gone beyond the boundaries of the solar system. Voyager 1 made it in 2012.

  19. Mark Daniel says:

    Why, if not us wherefore hast thou?

  20. Kris says:

    Joe,

    If the definition of “if not” is perhaps even, What is the definition of “If so”? Is it an ipso facto conjunctive? Or if not, what does it mean?

  21. E.H. says:

    It’s time for Joe to get a real job. If not now, when?

  22. Crout says:

    As per my usual nighttime routine, I checked Joe’s blog then jumped over to Bill James’ site. I love Bill’s Q&A section, and there it was, right at the top…..

    “It seems to me that two of the biggest (if not the biggest) objections to how pitcher wins are”

    This seems like a “perhaps even” to me.

  23. Benjamin Wildner says:

    I am amused at the idea that correcting a piece of the insanity that is the English language is more doable than any problem anywhere.

  24. Stephen in Atlanta says:

    Along the same lines…

    I cannot STAND IT when people (usually millenials) use the word “literally” as some kind of hyperbole-modifier for whatever point they’re trying to make.

    “Literally” has a literal meaning.

    In a column last year, you said Papelbon and the Nats choked, literally and figuratively. This is a correct usage of the word “literally.”

    I’m literally counting on you to lead the crusade to fix this.

  25. MikeN says:

    I just checked, and there are no misuses by Joe of ‘begs the question.’

  26. Ted Johnson says:

    Am I the only one who started singing about 3-hour tours?

    If not for the courage of the fearless crew, the minnow would be lost.

  27. Brent says:

    Sorry Joe, but standardized definitions of words and phrases is a bane to poetry, if not good prose.

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