A Consensus on 'If Not'


“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.