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A is as good as if not better than B

Explanations for this phrase I got are a bit controversial. Some say A≤B, some, A≥B, but others say it could be A≤B or A≥B depending on the situation.

The phrase "not better than" may mean "worse" or "almost the same." When you take the phrases "worse" and "almost the same," the sentence above expresses A≤B and A≥B, respectively.

The word "if" also has different meanings: concession and giving a hypothetical situation. When you take the "if" in the sentence shown as concession, the sentence seems to express A≥B.

I would like to know whether and how the sentence shown may be saying A≤B, A≥B, or A≤B or A≥B depending on the situation.


PS. user867 pointed out that this phrase is a fixed idiomatic expression. I would like to know your thoughts about this.

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4 Answers 4

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That sentence always means "A is at least as good as B". (I guess in your scheme you'd represent that as A≥B, assuming that "more" is "better".)

The reason for this is that "if not X" means roughly "or maybe even X". For example, "many if not most people like summer better" means "many people, maybe even most people, like summer better". So your sentence can be rephrased as:

A is as good as — maybe even better than — B.

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    +1 especially for noting OP's unwarranted conflation of quantity with excellence. The mathematical symbols ≥ and ≤ compare the former, not the latter. Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 19:29
  • +1. Usually I heard this in a context like "Most, if not all, people like the warmth of the sun"
    – justhalf
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 3:05
  • Thank you for the clear explanation about the phrase "if not". I have thought it in a different way. When you say "A is not better than B", is it possible that it means "A is worse than B"? In addition, when you say "not good", you probably means "bad". This is one of the reasons why I am confused. PS the mathematical symbols were convenient for me because of poor English skills and thank you for understanding what I was trying to say.
    – 243
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 19:31
  • @243: "A is not better than B" means "B is at least as good as A" -- "A≤B", in your scheme. But I doubt anyone would really say "A is not better than B" in normal conversation; it's not very idiomatic English.
    – ruakh
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 19:52
  • @243: By the way, you may be interested in our sister site for English Language Learners, ell.stackexchange.com.
    – ruakh
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 19:53
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The sentence (loosely) expresses A=>B (A is greater than or equal to B).

Here, the sentence want to say that A is at par with B; however, the writer thinks that A is slightly better than B.

Another example could be (if I say), "Volkswagen's cars are as good as, if not better, than Toyota's." This means that I think Volkswagen cars are slightly better than those of Toyota but we can safely assume that they are as good as Toyota's.

Here "if not better" doesn't mean "worse". It just means that the writer is being politically correct by not letting his ideas change the widely accepted assumptions.

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    I see your point, but I think you are being too categorical when you say the writer thinks that A is slightly better than B. I don't think the writer is saying exactly that, but perhaps mooting or suggesting it may be the case.
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 22:19
  • Right. But I have always seen this used when writer has a slight inclination towards A (as per the example); however, he unconditionally accepts that fact that at least A is equal to B. Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 4:54
  • A lot may depend on the stresses in the speaker's voice, his body language etc. e.g whether or not he shrugs his shoulders when he says it.
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 9:29
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I will basically agree with ruakh's answer, but also look at this from a logical perspective. The statement, reordered, is saying "If A is not better than B, than A is as good as B", or symbolically, "!(A > B) → (A = B)". The truth table is as follows:

Truth table for !(A > B) → (A = B)

This recalls that implication P → Q is false only when P is true and Q is false (as in the last row of the table). Therefore the only way for the statement to be true is to have either A = B or A > B, that is, A ≥ B.

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I agree with the position put forward by ruakh (and seconded and thirded by Ashish Singh and Daniel R. Collins) that the phrase "as good as if not better than" logically means "at least equal to but possibly greater than"—or symbolically, ≥.

In spoken and written English, however, people may sometimes use the phrase in a sense contrary to the logical one. The issue turns on the meaning that the speaker or writer intends if to have.

In mathematics and logic, we're accustomed to seeing if used to mean "accepting conditionally the premise that." So A ≥ B implies "A is equal to or greater than B" or, in other words, "A is equal to B if it is not greater than B"—that is, "A is equal to B, accepting conditionally the premise that it is not greater than B [which it might be]."

But people sometimes use if in colloquial speech in a very different sense—one that has been around for more than a century. Consider this sentence from Jack the Shepherd, "A Night in a Haystack; or, A Trial for the Derby," in Blackwood's Magazine (June 1891):

And a right good [cricket] club we had, though Lord's would scoff at us, and "The Oval" might smile at our style ; but didn't we just smash the Brazen-nose first eleven, and send them back in their four-in-hand to Oxford sadder if wiser men!

Jack the Shepherd is not saying here that the Brazen-nose first eleven returned to Oxford sadder only if they first satisfied the condition of being wiser, as one might suppose from a purely logical reading of the phrase "sadder if wiser"; to the contrary, he is saying that they returned sadder though [or but] wiser. In this construction, wiser is a counterpoint to sadder—a benefit to set against the disadvantage of being sadder—not a condition precedent to achieving sadness.

What happens when we insert if in the sense of "though" or "but" into the wording "A is as good as if not better than B"? Inescapably (it seems to me) we get this intended meaning:

A is as good as though [or but] not better than B.

—or in other words "A is equal to B, but it is not under any circumstances greater than B." In my experience, if used in the sense of "though" or "but" is very common in both spoken and written English. People tend not to use it in situations like "A is as good as if not better than B"—perhaps because they recognize the strong presumption on the part of their listeners or readers that if in such a construction is meant to be taken in its traditional logical/conditional sense—but does that mean that if in such a construction is inherently unambiguous? Clearly it does not, as the OP's comment above indicates:

Some say A≤B, some, A≥B, but others say it could be A≤B or A≥B depending on the situation.

The mathematical and logical meaning of "A is as good as if not better than B" is unmistakable and is precisely as ruakh describes it. But real-world, colloquial use of if to mean "though" or "but" casts at least a faint shadow of ambiguity over the sense of the expression when it comes from the mouth of a nonmathematician and nonlogician. Sadly but wisely, we shouldn't dismiss out of hand the possibility that someone might use "A is as good as if not better than B" to mean "A is equal to B, but it is not under any circumstances greater than B."

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    'If' can be given that meaning, but in my experience "as good, if not better than" idiom is a fixed idiom that doesn't use that meaning.
    – user867
    Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 22:57
  • This sort of ambiguity is why I usually avoid if not – I'm never sure if I'll communicate what I meant to! (That said, many fine writers don't avoid this ambiguity, and they seem to do fine.) But I agree with ruakh and user867 that in this particular string it seems unambiguous.
    – user28567
    Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 23:40
  • The set phrase argument has some merit and considerable practical force, as I noted in my answer. But what do readers think of the very similar phrase "as good as, if no better than": does it seem identical in tenor to "as good as, if not better than," or does it seem a bit more likely than its near-twin to mean "as good as, albeit no better than"? To me, the range of phrases that use "if not better than"/"if no better than"—including "[he's] back, if not better than ever," which I found in a related Google Books search—attenuate the force of the set phrase to some extent.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 0:31

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