0

I find it natural to say "If you hadn't told me about Sue's hair, I wouldn't have noticed it", but when if-not is substituted with unless in this specific sentence it sounds weird. I've found a similarly-constructed sentence that for some reason sounds more natural: He wouldn't have survived unless a stranger had rescued him. But I can't pin down the specific reason why the latter example sounds more natural to me. So is there a difference that makes the second example more correct or is it just that my English instinct is a little off on this one?

3
  • I don't like he wouldn't have survived unless a stranger had rescued him that much, either. Commented Jun 6, 2016 at 11:57
  • Now that I take another look at the sentence, I find that awkward as well.
    – Ron
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 11:45
  • "If you hadn't told me about Sue's hair ..."
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Aug 16, 2016 at 11:46

2 Answers 2

3

What is wrong is that this is a situation where you can't use unless. From Oxford Dictionaries Online,

unless: Except if (used to introduce the case in which a statement being made is not true or valid): unless you have a photographic memory, repetition is vital.

In your example, the statement "you had told me about Sue's hair" is presumably indeed valid, so it can't be introduced with unless.

3
  • That makes sense. Thanks! It's just that while researching into this topic I came across a few websites/forums that say you can use "unless + Subject + had" to mean "if + Subject + hadn't". One of the articles even gave an example: "They wouldn't have come over unless we'd invited them" = "They wouldn't have come over if we had not invited them." I guess that's wrong, too?
    – Ron
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 11:51
  • "They wouldn't have come over unless we'd invited them" is perfectly fine if they didn't come over (and in fact, it implies it). And "They wouldn't have come over if we hadn't invited them" implies that they did come over. Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 12:14
  • And in cases with general truths, like "Birds will sing if there are no hawks nearby" or "Birds will sing unless there are hawks nearby", unless and if not are equivalent. Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 12:18
-1

This is gramatically incorrect, because it lacks parallel construction (here's a Wikipedia link).

Briefly put, linked items in a sentence should have similar grammatical forms.

In

Unless you had told me about Sue's hair

the verb had is not negated, but in

I wouldn't have noticed it

wouldn't is negated.

The alternative you give

If you hadn't told me about Sue's hair, I wouldn't have noticed it

does not have this problem, and is the correct construction.

7
  • There's no grammatical requirement for parallel sentences to be that parallel. Can you show me anybody who criticizes Tennyson's line from Ulysses "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield" on the grounds that it is insufficiently parallel? Or any reference saying that adding a not to a parallel structure makes it ungrammatical, for that matter. Commented Jun 6, 2016 at 13:10
  • -1: I don't believe there is any grammatical requirement for consistency with negatives in parallel structures in English. As a native English speaker, I don't find this kind of inconsistency ungrammatical, as I do other kinds of inconsistency in parallel structures. Do you have any references that say this is ungrammatical, as I asked you for in a previous comment? Commented Jun 6, 2016 at 15:59
  • It's more than a little silly to language-lawyer English as if it were C++. There are no absolutely absolute absolutes; it's all a matter of degree. The Tennyson line is poetic license, and you could say the "parallelism" comes from the poem's meter. Introducing "Unless" in the second example creates a double negative, so in balance it's worse than the non parallel construction.
    – Spencer
    Commented Jun 6, 2016 at 16:03
  • The Purdue Owl website specifically gives as an example of good parallel structure something that would be considered ungrammatical per your answer. See the first example in Clauses: The coach told the players that they should get a lot of sleep, that they should not eat too much, and that they should do some warm-up exercises before the game. Commented Jun 6, 2016 at 16:09
  • Again: English. Not C++. In OP's original example, there is nothing else to link the two clauses except the negation. In all of your examples, there is something else.
    – Spencer
    Commented Jun 6, 2016 at 16:31

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.