Why the Phrase “If Not” Is Ambiguous

The phrase if not is ambiguous.  Find out why.

Neal Whitman, Writing for
6-minute read
Episode #546

if not ambiguous

One day, Squiggly and Aardvark were talking, and Aardvark told Squiggly, “Squiggly, you’re one of my best friends, if not my best friend!” 

Naturally, Squiggly was touched. He said, “Aww, Aardvark! You’re my best friend, too!” 

Now, though, imagine if the conversation had gone differently. Imagine if Aardvark had said, “Squiggly, you’re one of my best friends, if not my best friend.” 

In that case, Squiggly would have said, “Well, that was pretty passive-aggressive, if you ask me. ‘One’ of your best friends? Oh, of course, I remember: I’m your second best friend!”

Aardvark would have said, “What are you talking about?”

And Squiggly would have said, “You think I didn’t hear about episode #435, on modal auxiliary verbs? The one where it said, ‘Squiggly is Aardvark’s second best friend’? Oh, I heard about that, all right.”

Then Aardvark would have said, “Boy, aren’t we salty!” And Squiggly would have said, “You know that’s an offensive thing to say to a snail!” Aardvark would have yelled, “Fine!” And Squiggly would have yelled, “Fine!” too, and they wouldn’t have spoken to each other again until Aardvark’s best friend Fenster got tired of Squiggly and Aardvark’s drama and arranged a reconciliation that ended with the two of them hugging it out. 

Why would that imaginary conversation have gone so wrong, when Aardvark said the same thing to Squiggly as in their actual conversation? It’s not so much what Aardvark said as how he said it. When Aardvark enthusiastically told Squiggly, “You’re one of my best friends, if not my best friend!”, his tone made it clear that what he meant was, “You’re one of my best friends, and maybe even my very best friend.” But if he had used a doubtful tone of voice and said, “You’re one of my best friends, if not my best friend,” his tone would have carried the message, “You’re one of my best friends, although not good enough to be my absolute best friend.”

The troublesome part is the if not


About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg school board. You an find him at literalminded.wordpress.com.

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