Monday, 19 October 2015

If Not


"Karl was a great boardgamer, if not the best in the village."

So what does that mean?

"Karl was a great boardgamer, but not the best in the village."
or
"Karl was a great boardgamer, perhaps even the best in the village."

They're both valid interpretations, even though they're opposites (in one I'm not the best; in the other I may be the best). "If not" is an inherently ambiguous construction - so avoid using it unless you intend to be ambiguous. Instead use alternative constructions which make your meaning clear. Readers will thank you for it.

Further reading:
P.S. I am quite good at boardgames.
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4 comments:

Alyson said...

An interesting point I hadn't really considered much before. NB Sometimes you do get beaten at boardgames.

Karl Drinkwater said...

Yes, it does happen, though I think it stands out as an event due to the rarity.

Shaun Horton said...

I always thought it was the "perhaps even" version. Looking at it like that, though, I can certainly see the case for the other version and the confusion it could cause. I've learned something new today! Thanks. :-)

Karl Drinkwater said...

Hi Shaun, I hope you're well! I think it partly comes from the spoken versions - it is much easier to make the two interpretations distinct then via tone, but when written it becomes ambiguous (just like Internet humour). :-)