Whaddya Mean, 'If Not'?
By Evan Jenkins
In the passages below, and in thousands like them, the little phrase “if not” is inescapably sloppy, and it can be unfair.
“...at worst, he bullied his opponents and impugned their integrity, if not their patriotism.”
“Off and on for two decades, Dr. Lee’s behavior was curious, if not criminal.”
“If not” in both cases achieves the rarefied status of perfect ambiguity.
Did the writer mean that the subject in the first passage actually stopped short of attacking his opponents’ patriotism? Did the second writer mean Dr. Lee’s behavior was probably not criminal? Distinct possibilities, but the terse yet flabby “if not” doesn’t get the reader there.
Or, perhaps more likely in these examples (and more commonly), “if not” could mean the writers wanted to imply guilt without quite coming out with the charge. That’s dirty pool. Whatever meaning is intended, saying it directly and providing supporting evidence later is the responsible way to go.
A third distinct possibility, a cousin of the second, is that a writer doesn’t have a clue, but just wants to cover all bases by slipping in the possibility of something ugly. That’s both sloppy and unfair.