If Not…

The expression “if not…” has to have become one of the most useless expressions in the English language. This expression takes the form “X if not Y”, but the relationship between X and Y in this expression is very ambiguous. In usage it appears to be one of those very few phrases (like the word “sanction”) that can express opposite ideas.

Take the statement, for example, “liberals, if not outright communists”. Someone who believes in universal health care for example, might be said (fairly or not, just using an example) to be “a liberal, if not an outright communist.” But what is being said here? The formal expression would be saying that the belief makes someone a liberal, but the commenter would stop short of calling them an actual communist.

But oddly, the way this phrase is very often used and interpreted, the above statement would be read as accusing the person of holding this view of being a communist. This seems to be a violation of the plain meaning of the words, and yet it is how it is often used. Thus the phrase has become virtually meaningless. I suggest that in order to avoid misunderstandings and ambiguity, the phrase should be avoided, if not prohibited altogether.

By the way, check out the new blog on my blogroll, Aspiring Polymathis. It’s the blog of Shawn Mathis, an OPC pastor in Denver and I’ve very much enjoyed it so far.

2 thoughts on “If Not…

  1. T. Hager says:

    When I read that phrase I’m thinking,”at the least they are liberals, but could even be communists.” It makes sense to me.

  2. sorry i’m late to comment, but i can’t pass up logic proofs…

    “x if not y” can be translated as “if not y, then x” (in formal proofs syntax, “¬y → x”) or in your example, “if not an outright communist, then a liberal”. this statment does not infer that the person is not a communist, just that if they aren’t, then they are [at least] a liberal.

    the only other inference that can be made from this proposition is through transposition (“¬y → x” transposes to “¬x → ¬¬y” or “¬x → y”), or in your example that “if not a liberal, then an outright communist”.

    have a good day!

    ~john d.

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