6

Choose between:

The school will close **unless** it stops snowing soon.
The school will close **until** it stops snowing soon.

Just to be clear, "soon" is a given, and it does not refer to the school closing, it refers to the snow stopping.

I was doing this exercise today with my students, and the only difference between the two sentences is "unless/until". In the exercise, people were supposed to choose between unless/until. According to the answer key, the first answer is correct. I know the second answer is wrong, but what is an easy way to explain to someone that it is wrong? For what reasons?

I have an idea but I need to clarify why the second answer is incorrect. Is it because if I say until, the focus is more on the long state of being closed? “Until”, by definition means up to a point in time. My preference would be to say “The school will be closed until…”. In that situation, we cannot say the school "will close" until. It sounds strange to me.

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  • 1
    "Until" ... "soon" doesn't make any sense.
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 13 at 22:19
  • Is it safe to say we don't ever use "until" with "soon"?
    – meepyer
    Sep 13 at 22:25
  • 1
    Doesn't the dictionary tell you difference between 'unless' and 'until'? Sep 13 at 22:32
  • 2
    @PhilSweet "Soon" does not specify a time/date.
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 14 at 2:19
  • 1
    Don’t the sentences just have different meanings? With “unless” the school doesn’t necessarily close (it will stay open if it stops snowing soon) but with “until” (awkward as the sentence feels) it will definitely close and reopen again when it stops snowing.
    – 11684
    Sep 14 at 7:32

2 Answers 2

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Until means

up to the point in time or the event mentioned

[Oxford Languages]

Unless means

except on the condition that

[MW]

To simplify, until refers to an actual point in time, even if we don't know when that point is. Unless doesn't refer to time. It refers to a condition being satisfied.

The statement "this condition would need to be satisfied soon" makes sense. The statement "the point in time soon" doesn't.

2

The illogicality of this construction comes from the fact that the subordinate idea (stops snowing) is specified as happenig in the future at an indefinite time; this is made necessary by the conjunction "until", which means "up to the point where this action is realized, whatever the time". If, in addition you specify that the point is at a particular position in time, that is, near the time of speaking, then you contradict that this position in time has been considered to be indefinite; this is so because "soon" denotes a point in time that is definite enough.

Let's take a point which is perfectly definite, and we see even better the nonsense that results.

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  • 1
    "The school will close until it stops snowing at noon."... If we know that it's going to stop snowing at noon, that would be OK. Or, more contrived: it snows every day at noon, but the plough often can't get here until the afternoon. So we'll keep the school closed until the spring -- when it stops snowing at noon. Sep 14 at 8:00
  • @RogerLipscombe That is accessory to the bare question, but worth considering; I did think about something such as you mention but thought that I would diverge too much. After all I think it could be explained, so as to make the exploration of this logical concept more encompassing.
    – LPH
    Sep 14 at 8:30
  • @RogerLipscombe In your first case I think a comma would be necessary after "snowing" (not the same grammatical function).
    – LPH
    Sep 14 at 8:56
  • 1
    "I will remain here until Bob arrives to take over on Tuesday." What you wrote sounds good but cannot be right after you think about it. Sep 15 at 15:43
  • @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. In your sentence, "Bob arrives to take over on Tuesday" is possibly a usual way of writing the sort of contingecy that we suppose, but in my opinion a comma is necessary after "over". "On Tuesday" cannot be an adverbial modifying "arrives". It corresponds to "until Bob arrives to take over, that is, on Tuesday". You do not say "Your coat is where you left it in the wardrobe." unless you are talking about a particular place in the wardrobe, which is not usually what is meant considering the smallness of an average wardrobe. (1/3)
    – LPH
    Sep 15 at 21:01

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