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As far as I know, "if not" normally means something in the vein of "perhaps even", such as in the example phrase "We might be able to hunt down three, if not four rabbits with the ammo we have".

But I've encountered an example of usage where I'm not sure ifthe user's intentions reflect the phrase's intended meaning. The excerpt is:

"A newly initiated practitioner of the dark arts, Arcanus is taking his first steps down the path which he hopes will lead him to power and glory. Strong in mind if not body, he has concentrated his time in pursuit of magical knowledge."

Necromancers in that particular game (it's Might & Magic 8 btw) are the frailest and physically weakest class by design, as is generally common with spellcaster classes in RPG games. The usage of "if not" in this case therefore wouldn't be justified in having vibes of "strong in mind, and who knows, maybe even body?" I would be sooner inclined to understand it as another way of saying "so strong in mind that it's no harm done that he's weak in body".

What are your impressions?

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    One might instead write "Strong of mind, although not of body..." or "Strong of mind, even if not of body..." to mean the same thing (although these are both wordier than necessary). – Michael Lee Jul 18 '17 at 0:02
  • The two uses say different things. Strong in mind if not body says directly that he has a strong mind but not exactly a strong body. Three if not four means we might well get four. – Yosef Baskin Jul 18 '17 at 0:53
  • Possible duplicte english.stackexchange.com/questions/332492/… – Xanne Jul 18 '17 at 6:19
  • Yeah,Yosef. But the issue is - the usage you described is not acknowledged as valid anywhere I checked. I understood it this way too, but it's too open for interpretation in my opinion. – thuckles Jul 18 '17 at 9:18
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Both examples are correct and orthodox uses of the expression. In both cases,"X if not Y" means "maybe not Y but at least X".

In the Arcanus example, The writer presumably knows whether Arcanus is strong in body but declines to say that he is. This carries the implication that he is probably not strong in body. Nonetheless, in both examples "X if not Y" leaves "Y" unknown.

  • Your first paragraph is great, and I was about to upvote your answer, but I don’t understand what the second paragraph is saying. Please edit your answer to be clearer; do not respond in comments. – Scott Jul 18 '17 at 2:45
  • "X if not Y" leaves "Y" unknown is very good analysis, and the surrounding information, where hints can be strong, reveals whether the unknown factor is likely or not. If I heard that my honesty is unknown, I would know I have been insulted. "Frailest and physically weakest" informs us Arcanus is not strong of body, his body is not known to be strong. Potato chips are delicious if not nutritious, but we already now whether they are nutritious or not. – Yosef Baskin Jul 18 '17 at 13:53

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