unless vs. if ... not...

Discussion in 'English Only' started by Shingo, May 3, 2013.

  1. Shingo Senior Member

    Japanese
    Hello.

    I have a question about the word unless.

    According to a dictionary, in most cases, the word unless can be replaced with the expression if ... not, but in some cases not.
    The dictionary says that you can say "I'll be surprised if Ann doesn't come to the meeting," but that you cannot say "I'll be surprised unless Ann comes to the meeting."

    I was wondering how different the two expressions "unless" and "if ... not" are.

    I try making up the following sentences in which the two expressions are used.

    (A) He will be angry if you don't come to the meeting.

    (B) He will be angry unless you come to the meeting.

    I think that (A) and (B) have almost the same meaning.
    However, if I try to find differences between the two, I think in the case of (A), it mentions only the case that "you" don't come, but it does not mention the case "you" come. Therefore, there is still a possibility that "he" will be angry even if "you" come to the meeting, say, if you have very bad news.
    However, in the case of (B), "he" won't be angry only if "you" come to the meeting, which means there is no possibility at all that "he" will be angry if "you" come to the meeting, no matter whether you have bad news or not. Am I right? Or am I too concerned about logic? Maybe language used in ordinary life is not that strict in terms of logic.

    Thank you.
     
    Last edited: May 3, 2013
  2. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    There could be a considerable difference between your two sentences:

    (A) He will be angry if you don't come to the meeting. - in the event that you fail to come, he'll be angry.

    This usually carries the distinct suggestion of potential failure on your part, I'd say: he wants you to come and will take it badly if you don't.

    (B) He will be angry unless you come to the meeting. - your coming to the meeting will prevent his being angry.

    Here the suggestion might be that he thinks you are under no obligation to come, and may not even know that you may come. But your coming is perceived by the speaker as having a potentially emollient effect on him.
     
  3. Shingo Senior Member

    Japanese
    Thank you, Thomas.

    What you mean may be:
    In the case of (A), the cause of his anger will be your not coming, but in the case of (B), he is angry for other reasons than you, but he will stop being angry only if you come. Do I understand right?

    Do you say a sentence like "I'll be surprised unless Ann comes to the meeting."? If so, what nuances does this carry?
     
    Last edited: May 3, 2013
  4. garnet200 New Member

    English - United States
    There are some situations where they are interchangeable, and other situations when one expression makes more sense to use.

    In your example,

    "He will be angry if you don't come to the meeting" sounds natural, because the focus of the sentence is on the fact that you are expected at the meeting (this is the normal course of events) and the consequence of your not going is that he will be angry.

    "He will be angry unless you come to the meeting"
    doesn't sound very natural, because it sounds like the normal course of events is that the boss will be angry for whatever or any reason, except if you go to the meeting.

    You might use "unless" for emphasis if there were other reasons that the boss might be angry, and going to the meeting was the only chance of the employee redeeming himself.

    Ex -
    Person A: "Do you think it's okay if I don't go to the meeting?
    Person B: "You haven't been doing such a great job lately. Unless you go to the meeting, he will be angry."


    Example where they are interchangeable:

    If it doesn't rain, we will have a picnic.
    Unless it rains, we will have a picnic.


    These mean the same thing and saying either one would be considered normal.


    One expression or the other might add more emphasis:

    If it doesn't
    rain, we could go to the zoo.
    Unless it rains, we're planning to go to the zoo.


    "If I don't start studying more, I'm going to fail this class." Failing the class is something liable to happen if the student doesn't take the action of studying more.
    "I'm going to fail this class unless some miracle happens." Failing the class seems likely, but if and only if something exceptional were to happen, the student wouldn't fail.

    However a teacher might use the expressions interchangeably: "Unless you start studying more, you're going to fail this class."
    The teacher is trying to impress the gravity of the situation onto the student, and is emphasizing that the student should study.


    Person A: "Do you want to go to the bar?"
    Person B: "I promised my girlfriend that I'd clean the house. If I don't, she'll get angry. What do you think? Should I just tell her I forgot about it?"
    Person A: Well, she'll be upset unless you go clean the house.


    Person A is using "unless" to emphasize and remind person B of the likely consequences of his "If I don't."


    Let me try to think of some cases with a more marked difference.

    "I don't say 'I love you' if I don't really mean it."
    The first clause tells something I don't do, in the case that the second clause is true.
    "I don't say 'I love you' unless I really mean it.
    " The first clause tells something that I only do if the second clause is true.

    "If you don't use sunscreen, you might get burned." Getting burned is a possible consequence of not wearing sunscreen.
    "I might get a pack of cigarettes, unless I don't have any cash on me."
    Getting a pack of cigarettes is an intention, not having cash is something that could interrupt the intended action.


    Does it make any more sense to you?
     
  5. garnet200 New Member

    English - United States
    This would be strange to say. It sounds like Ann coming to the meeting is the only thing that could stop you from being surprised. But surprise isn't a general temperament, it always has a direct cause.

    Saying "I'll be surprised if Ann doesn't come to the meeting," means that you expect Ann to come to the meeting, and if she doesn't, you will be surprised as a consequence.
     
  6. Shingo Senior Member

    Japanese
    Thank you for your detailed explanation, garnet200.

    I understand that if you say A if B, A is a result from B. It is about the cause-effect relation.
    If you say A unless B, it means A is generally true, but except for the case of B. It is not about cause and effect/ condition.

    I try making up some examples to make sure.

    A) He is happy, unless you come.
    B) He is happy if you do not come. (Maybe "He will be happy...." is better.)

    A) implies that he is generally happy.
    B) implies that he is generally unhappy because you come, but his happiness results if you don't come.

    Is this right?

    Thank you.
     
  7. garnet200 New Member

    English - United States
    Yes, it sounds like you have understood the implications correctly.

    However, I would phrase your examples like this:

    A) He will be happy, unless you come.
    B) He will be happier if you do not come.

    (A)doesn't sound very natural though. More ways you could say either (A) or (B) are:
    He will not be happy if you come.
    He would not be happy if you came.


    Another example:

    A) I will be sad unless my team wins.
    B) I will be sad if my team doesn't win.

    These mean the same thing because there are only two possible events: My team wins, or it loses.

    C) I always get sad if my team loses.
    D) I'm always sad, unless something unusual and exciting happens.

    These do not mean the same thing because in (C) the speaker is normally not sad, but becomes sad as a result of his or her team losing. In (D) the speaker is normally sad, but ceases to be sad when something exceptional happens.
     
  8. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    I agree with you about how the sentence will be perceived, but don't understand why you don't think it sounds natural.

    Some bosses may be perpetually angry.
     
  9. garnet200 New Member

    English - United States

    Good point. I guess I said that because it's still hard to imagine that sentence unless it's in reply to something else. I can also think of wordings that I would expect to be used instead.
    If a boss is perpetually angry I find it hard to believe that an employee would have full confidence that one person showing up to one meeting will turn his anger around.

    "The boss is angry again" - "He'll keep being angry unless you come to the meeting."
    - "He might cheer up if you come to the meeting."

    Those sound more natural to me for some reason.
     

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