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Consider the sentence:

While this assumption, on its own, is relatively innocuous, if implausible, in practice, it is supplemented by assumptions...

The 'if' here really means something more like 'but perhaps also'.

Another sentence:

He appeared very happy, if not exuberant, at her arrival.

'if not' here means something like 'and perhaps even', as if the latter statement should be a more extreme version of the former. But it also feels like an exclusive disjunction. That is, it is one or maybe the other, but not both. On the other hand, 'if' by itself feels like both statements could be true.

I can conjure up many examples where both 'if' and 'if not' violate my above descriptions and many more which just seem malformed and awkward but fit them, e.g., 'He seems happy, if not a little confused'. or 'The proof appeared correct, if sloppily constructed,'... Adding further confusion, if I make a small change to the previous example: 'The proof appeared correct, if a little sloppy, .., it feels correctly formed although the semantics or grammar have not changed substantially (although I could be wrong as I am thoroughly confused now).

So my questions are: are there any concise descriptions of how to use 'if' and 'if not'? Does this grammar usage have a name? When are they interchangeable and when not?


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I think you may have got the meaning of "if" in this construction wrong. I understand the meaning as "albeit", or "even if". But I agree that "if not" means "and perhaps even" - or more precisely, "almost", in most contexts. So (as you would expect given the presence/absence of "not"), they're effectively opposites, not at all "interchangeable". – FumbleFingers Feb 20 '12 at 23:09
...you're just confusing the usage by introducing "semi-negating" elements like the word "little". In essence, "if" introduces a "contrasting" element, and "if not" introduces a "similar, but not quite justifiable in the context" element. – FumbleFingers Feb 20 '12 at 23:13
up vote 2 down vote accepted

I think, in this construction, if is essentially equivalent to although. One can substitute although for if, salva veritate, in the examples given, and in all the examples I can think of.

I might add that this particular if construction is an "aside", often set off by dashes or parentheses in writing, or otherwise almost always by commas. All of these punctuation marks indicate that the tone and volume are low, with flat intonation through the phrase, which is a mark of a part of an utterance that's not meant to be parsed as the main predication.

"Aside" is a stage direction for lines to be delivered not to the other players but to the audience.

share|improve this answer
+1 Agreed "although" is probably more readily grasped for someone not quite sure how it works. My "albeit" might not always fit, and it's a bit stilted/formal/archaic. But I still think OP has got things a bit mixed up, because to me the effect of adding "not" is pretty much to give an "opposite" meaning. – FumbleFingers Feb 21 '12 at 0:50
@FumbleFingers, I agree with your last point. I read OP's second sentence to mean he was not exuberant, not that he was "perhaps even exuberant. If you move the clause to the front it becomes more obvious. – Sam Feb 21 '12 at 2:09
@Sam: Yeah. The problem with "if not" in such constructions is it can be a disparaging "but not actually" just as easily as "or maybe even". The interpretation is mainly context-dependent, but of course if it were spoken the two different meanings would be delivered with very different intonations. We, of course, see only words on a screen here at ELU, so we can choose for ourselves how to read it. In both cases he's not actually exuberant. OP:upbeat - he's nearly exuberant. You:downbeat - he's only very happy. – FumbleFingers Feb 21 '12 at 3:25

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