English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage

If not, why not?

Q: My question is about a sentence like “Jones is smart, if not brilliant.” Does this mean “Jones is smart, but he isn’t brilliant”? Or does it mean “Jones is smart and maybe even brilliant”? It seems to me I’ve heard this “if not” construction used both ways.

A: We’re not surprised that you’re confused by this use of “if not.” It can be downright confusing, especially in writing when you aren’t able to use intonation and emphasis to get your meaning across.

The usage authority Bryan A. Garner says “if not” can mean either “but not” or “maybe even.”

Writing in Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), he says it’s “often an ambiguous phrase to be avoided.”

Garner gives several examples of the expression used ambiguously in each sense. In all the examples, he says, it’s possible for a reader to arrive at the unintended meaning.

Here’s a “maybe even” example from the Dec. 8, 1996, issue of the Dallas Morning News: “The greater Phoenix area is one of the fastest—if not the fastest—growth areas for call centers nationwide.” (Aside: We would have written, “The greater Phoenix area is one of the fastest growth areas for call centers nationwide—if not the fastest.”)

And here’s a “but not” example from the April 12, 1996, issue of the Los Angeles Times: “She gave proficient, if not profound, readings.”

Theodore M. Bernstein, another usage authority, says “if not” is “usually perfectly clear in spoken language,” though it becomes “a tantalizing ambiguity” in writing.

In The Careful Writer, Bernstein gives this example of an ambiguous “if not” sentence: “The proposed taxes would be levied primarily, if not exclusively, on New York and Pennsylvania residents.”

He says a speaker would use his voice to emphasize or deemphasize the word “exclusively,” leaving no doubt about his meaning. But a writer can’t “indicate a rise or fall in tonal register.”

His recommendation: “The solution to the present problem should have become evident in its very discussion: if you mean perhaps, say so; if you mean but not, say so.”

We think that makes sense. As we’ve said many times—if not many, many times—the whole point of writing is communicating. And nothing should interfere with that.

One last point. Garner thinks the “perhaps” sense of “if not” is more common than the “but not” sense. Perhaps, but we’re not sure about that.

In fact, there’s only one citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for “if not” in the senses we’ve been talking about, and it’s a “but not” example.

The English author-priest Mark Pattison used the phrase in an essay published posthumously in 1845 in the Anglican periodical Christian Remembrancer: “The style of Bede, if not elegant Latin, is yet correct, sufficiently classical.”

Standard dictionaries generally don’t have entries for “if not.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) doesn’t define “if not,” but it gives this “maybe even” example of the usage: “difficult if not impossible.”  

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