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Unless disciplined, a dog becomes a household pest.

Is the use of unless in this sentence correct? It sounds to my naive ear to be fine, but I always think of unless as a conjunction, which does not seem to be the case here. I looked up unless in an online dictionary and discovered that it can additionally be used as a preposition in the sense of "except for", but again that would not seem to apply to this sentence as disciplined is an adjective. Since the sentence is taken from Strunk and White and sounds right to my ear, I am sure it is correct, so my main interest is to discover what the underlying construction is here.

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Yes, it's correct. – ShreevatsaR Jan 13 '11 at 15:15
up vote 3 down vote accepted

In the sentence,

Unless disciplined, a dog becomes a household pest

unless is a conjunction*. This sentence is really a reduction of

Unless it is disciplined, a dog becomes a household pest.

The conjunctional function becomes clearer upon a rearrangement of the clauses:

A dog becomes a household pest, unless [it is] disciplined.

The most likely constructions a native speaker would use are the following:

  • A dog becomes a household pest, unless it is disciplined.
  • Unless it is disciplined, a dog becomes a household pest.
  • Unless a dog is disciplined, it becomes a household pest.
  • Unless disciplined, a dog becomes a household pest.

*I see how unless could be said to be used as a preposition:

A dog becomes a household pest unless disciplined.

(No comma before unless and disciplined becomes an adjective.) I doubt this is formal usage, though. Before the independent clause, however, I would always take unless as a conjunction.

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Thanks, I had never really noticed before that dependent clauses can leave out the subject and verb when preceding the independent clause. – mcheema Jan 13 '11 at 12:33
"They didn't bother much at other times unless asked, and then they often had to think twice." I found this sentence where it seems the dependent clause following the independent clause has the subject and verb understood. EDIT: This is probably the case where unless is a preposition. – mcheema Jan 13 '11 at 13:18
@mcheema: Certainly! Great example. I would still consider unless used a conjunction there, with the subject and verb understood. I should edit that unidiomatic sentence in my answer. But honestly, I'm not sure where that unless-as-a-preposition came up... :) – Jimi Oke Jan 13 '11 at 14:51
I don't think it is helpful to call it a preposition in your last example. You can use "unless" as a preposition in at least some dialects: "It's not worth talking to anybody, unless Freddy". But I think that is functionally different from your "unless disciplined" because "disciplined" really is not a substantive here. "unless a disciplined one" would be a PP, but I don't find the suggestion convincing that "disciplined" stands for "a disciplined one" here. – Colin Fine Jan 14 '11 at 16:47

Unless means "if not"; hence, the word "not" should not be introduced in the clause beginning with "unless." For example:

Unless you work hard, you will fail.

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