The ambiguous “if not” construction
an e-mail I sent to Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post
Dear Miss Rubin,
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In your column on Obama yesterday, you wrote:
Let’s face it: His sole talent always has been in self promotion, topped by his winning a vapid presidential campaign in which he convinced voters he was a unifying, if not messianic, figure.
The passage illustrates the ambiguity of the unfortunately common phrase, “if not.” Here’s the problem. Do you mean to say that Obama convinced voters that he was a messianic figure, or that he didn’t convince them of that? The “if not” construction leaves the issue up in the air. If you think that he did convince voters that he was a messianic figure, then something like this would work:
… topped by his winning a vapid presidential campaign in which he convinced voters he was a unifying, even messianic, figure.
This way, the ambiguity is gone. You’re saying that he convinced voters that he was a unifying figure, and that he also convinced at least some of them that he was a messianic figure.
If you think he did not convince voters he was a messianic figure, then why mention the subject of his messiahship it at all? However, if what you want to say is that that some people think he convinced voters he was a messianic figure, but that you don’t agree that he so convinced them, you might write:
… topped by his winning a vapid presidential campaign in which he convinced voters he was a unifying, though not a messianic, figure.
This alternative also gets rid of the irritating ambiguity of the “if not” construction.
“If not” is one of those phrases that many people habitually use, without realizing the problems it causes. It should be used much less, if not thrown out entirely. (See the problem? Did I mean to say that the phrase should be thrown out entirely, or not? There’s no excuse for such ambiguity.)
Christopher B. writes:
Yes, that is a strange construction, and one which I have been noticing for quite a number of years.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at October 10, 2011 10:10 AM | Send
For example, consider: “Newton is a great scientist, if not the greatest scientist.”
This seems as if it could mean either of the following: (1) Newton is a great scientist, even if not the greatest scientist; or (2) Newton is a great scientist, indeed probably the greatest scientist. [LA replies: Exactly. That is the ambiguity that makes the sentence unacceptable. Of course, if someone is deliberately being ambiguous, that is one thing. But for the most part the people who use the “if not” phrase are not intending to be ambiguous; they simply are not thinking about the meaning of what they are saying and don’t realize how ambiguous it is.]
However, we do not absolutely want to get rid of this construction, since it leaves room for ambiguity and all kinds of backhanded compliments, e.g., “Auster’s blog is an interesting blog, if not the most interesting one.”