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Ken Spolsino

Ain't dat da bom!


Dear Peter

You can always say,"I am a good tennis player BUT not a great one", "If not" usefully implies uncertainty and perhaps vanity.


Warsaw Will

Surely, as you say on another post, intonation is the key. Or in writing, context. To simply put forward this sentence in isolation (and presumably in written form) and ask people for their interpretation doesn't seem a very realistic test to me. Yes, there will be some occasions when it is ambiguous and best avoided, but I'm sure you could say that about a lot of things.

Some examples from the first two pages on Google for "if not a":

A Prudent Move by Rose, if Not a Popular One - essay title in the NYT - the first paragraph makes the meaning clear - the move is not popular with fans.

Sharing a Screen, if Not a Classroom - another one from the NYT - an article about virtual teaching, so it is clear they don't share a classroom.

"'The Champion' at Opera Theatre is a contender, if not a winner" - article on a US radio website - again the the meaning is clear from the article; it's not a winner.

"Publishing in the Indie Era – Making a Living if Not a Killing" - advertising a conference. Possibly ambiguous, but probably not to the indie publishers it was aimed at.

As far as I can see, these are all quite clear from context, and interestingly all of them seem to give the straightforward (or "but") meaning, not the ironic ones those tested by the Economist seemed to go for.

But there's an interesting one on Tripadviser, which made me look twice - “Nice room if not a bit noisy” - I think the "not" perhaps got in there by mistake!

Peter Harvey

A search for if not in the British National Corpus shows these as the first five of 50 random examples:

A0T 981 Clearly, conscious processes are central to an individual's own experience, but most of us remain neutral as to whether they are central to cognitive processes given that many, if not most, of these are not conscious.

A0X 800 Designs composed of small masses of veneer forming a readable ‘picture’, correspond roughly in looks, if not in colour, to subjects as they actually appear to the eye; they seem to be in 3D even though they are flat, and to a degree they are naturalistic.

A7S 190 She also knows that the media tendency to lump together women singer-songwriters in a ‘gee whiz, gosh, women are now making it’ syndrome is patronising, if not pernicious.

ABL 1141 No more can I find, if not content, yet a gorgeous enjoyment, in mere dreams, where men have no past.

ADA 11 In actual fact my walking stick and gloves are (I am almost too ashamed to admit) an elaborate affectation which has by degrees grown into such a habit that I find it difficult, if not impossible, to lay them aside.

Inasmuch as the context may make the meaning clear, and I do not think that it does in all cases, I still feel that a clear sentence that does to rely on context to clarify its meaning is preferable.

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