Thursday, October 21, 2010

Unless You Read This...


Lots of people think that the word 'unless' just means 'if...not'. This isn't quite so. Although 'unless' could be used instead of 'if...not' to convey the same meaning in some cases, it's not possible all the time. Let's consider some examples:

1. If  he doesn't go there, he won't meet her. (= Unless he goes there, he won't meet her.)

2. If he doesn't go there, he'll save some money. ('Unless' can't be used here to give the same meaning.)

3. You'd never believe it if you didn't see it. (= You'd never believe it unless you saw it.)

4. It wouldn't be that bad if you didn't see it. ('Unless' can't be used here to give the same meaning.) 

5. She wouldn't have come here if he hadn't invited her. (= She wouldn't have come here unless he had invited her.)

6. She would have been sad if he hadn't invited her. ('Unless' can't be used here to give the same meaning.) 

As can be seen above, the word 'unless' can't always be used as a replacement for 'if...not'. 'Unless' rather seems to mean something like 'except if' - that is, 'except under the possible circumstances that...'. In other words, it can only be used in instances where the opposite of the statement can be expressed with 'only if' or, in the case of Example 5 (the third conditional), 'the reason could only be that...':

If you don't go there, you won't meet her. (You'll meet her only if you go there.)

You'd never believe it if you didn't see it. (You'd believe it only if you saw it.)

She wouldn't have come here if he hadn't invited her. (She came here, and the reason could only be that he invited her; he must have invited her.)

However, it's surprising that even some sources of English grammar lazily declare that 'unless' means the same as 'if...not'.  As 'unless' mostly occurs in the first conditional, some sources say it isn't used with the second and third conditionals, but usage once again shows otherwise as long as it's about a possibility:

'Unless you had a specific agreement with the building society that they would hold open the account indefinitely, they would be at liberty to close the account.' (Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/working_lunch/5393402.stm

'... so unless they had already been in the area, it would have taken some time for them to reach the border...' (Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/northern_ireland/8220888.stm

(Image Credit: Eva Blue

4 comments:

  1. Dear Sujeewa,

    I was a guy who sipmly ignored English language completely one time despite my father used to be an English teacher. No simple sentese I was able to write or tell as i was very poor at English.But once selected for Moratuwa university, I happened to learn it as no option left with me.As time went I improved my language proficiency and managed to communicate witohut any hesitation. Nonetheless, I still feel little unconfortable when I could not use proper function word while in conversation. To be honest, your simple explanations on these simple yet important matters are very instrumental for some one who really missed the basics. Thanks again and keep going

    ReplyDelete
  2. @Anonymous
    Thanks for the appreciation.

    ReplyDelete

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