A friend pointed out to me recently that I have a tendency to preface some of my sentences with the phrase "Unless if..."

For example:

Unless if we take the highway, we won't make it in time.

She insists that this is grammatically incorrect. Is this, and if it is, how is this sentence wrong? Would this phrasing be still incorrect if, instead, I said:

Unless, if we take the highway, we won't make it in time.

closed as off-topic by FumbleFingers, tchrist, Kristina Lopez, TimLymington, user66974 Jul 27 '14 at 6:26

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  • 1
    It's not grammatical. Unless we take the freeway, we'll be late = If we don't take the freeway, we'll be late. Since unless already means "if not", another if is confusing, to put it mildly. – John Lawler Jul 25 '14 at 16:31
  • You didn't mention what her suggestion is to correct the sentence. – Neeku Jul 25 '14 at 16:38
  • Unless if someone claims this is an "Appalachian English" usage (which wouldn't totally flabber my ghast), I think this question is Off Topic General Reference. – FumbleFingers Jul 25 '14 at 16:52
  • @JohnLawler Does unless really mean if not, though? (Heretically) I don't believe so. I believe conditional if is exactly the same item as interrogative if - a meaningess clause-type marker (aka a subordinator in CamGEL-speak). The difference in meaning between interrogaive and conditional if-clauses, I argue, derives solely from their grammatical relations. – Araucaria Aug 18 '18 at 18:23
  • @Araucaria If unless doesn't mean if not, what does it mean? I don't care about the different versions of if (which I agree means whether in embedded questions), but this question's about unless if. – John Lawler Aug 18 '18 at 20:33

Unless is a kind of negative of if—think of it as very much like “if . . . not.” Adding if to it is thus redundant, confusingly so—it makes it seem as if the main clause is being limited by two conditions, not one. For instance, your last example would only really make grammatical sense in the context of a larger sentence such as this:

Unless, if we take the highway, we won’t make it in time, we really should take those scenic back roads.

In other words, if it is the case that if we take the highway we shall arrive late, then we should take the highway; otherwise, we should take the back roads, because they are more scenic. There are two conditionals operating here.


Combining the two "just because" is grammatically wrong and confusing, but while "unless" connects two clauses, one of the clauses can be a conditional based on "if".

We won't make it on time, unless, if the boss is in good mood, he might move the deadline.

Here we have two clauses connected by unless:

We won't make it on time, unless the boss moves the deadline.

But the second clause is conditional:

If the boss is in good mood, he might move the deadline.

That way two unrelated conjunctions are brought together - but that's accidental, definitely not a regular syntax.

  • I find it interesting that you use the hypothetical might move in the simple ‘if’ conditional (undoubtedly grammatical) and the regular present moves in the ‘unless’ clause (also undoubtedly grammatical—a hypothetical here would be ungrammatical to me) … but then maintain/reintroduce the hypothetical might move when the ‘if’ conditional is embedded in the ‘unless’ clause. This latter is ungrammatical to me: to me, it must be “We won’t make it on time, unless, if the boss is in (a) good mood, he moves the deadline”. Am I alone in this? – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 25 '14 at 17:29
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: Absolutely don't take me as any kind of authority on that. English is my second language and this is the kind of errors I'm quite prone to make. – SF. Jul 25 '14 at 17:31

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