Phrases with the words if not are heard often, but they are not always clear. These two little words can take on different meanings depending on the context.
Nothing if not = definitely
Nothing if not acts as an intensifier and means “definitely” or “certainly.”
- Bad spelling is nothing if not annoying.
Here, the meaning is clear: Bad spelling is definitely annoying.
Most, if not all = and possibly all
Similar phrases, such as most, if not all, can be very confusing. You should avoid this phrase unless you are discussing a truly uncertain situation. Here is a logical use of that phrase:
- Scientists believe that most, if not all, black butterflies live in South America.
The scientists are not positive that all black butterflies live in South America, so they are being cautious. Here, if not all means “and possibly all.” (Note that a comma is needed before and after if not all.)
If not = although not
Often, if not phrases are used to connect strong and weak descriptors:
- Alex’s welcome was pleasant, if not enthusiastic.
Because enthusiastic is a stronger word than pleasant, we understand this sentence to mean that the welcome was not unpleasant but not very enthusiastic, either. Here, the phrase if not means “although not.”
If not = or even
In a similar sentence, if not may mean “or even”:
- You will receive an answer in a matter of hours, if not minutes.
Here, the emphasis is on a rapid response: your answer will arrive in hours, or even minutes.
As you can see, the meaning of if not changes according to the context. Our advice: be very careful when using those two little words!
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