Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Warm, If Not Miserable

Posted by Neal on October 31, 2006

As Doug and I walked the neighborhood this evening in our respective cockroach and chicken costumes, Doug hefted his trick-or-treat bag and mused: “This candy can last until April, and then I always get some candy for Easter, and I’m always invited to akleast a couple of birthday parties in a year where they give candy in a goody bag, so I always have candy!”

Inwardly, I chuckled bitterly. I remember wishing as a kid that I could have a drawer devoted to a candy stash that I could enjoy anytime I wanted. Wouldn’t that be great? And it’d be awesome if I could be invisible, too, or had the power of teleportation. Now, here’s Doug, rejoicing in his very own candy drawer. At least he’s not taking it for granted, and he handles having one better than I would have. When there’s candy around, I keep coming around and eating it until it’s gone. While it’s still there, it feels like a job undone. Doug’s candy really can stay in his candy drawer for months, with him eating just a piece or two every now and then.

On the subject of moderation, a locally famous Ohio Halloween tradition isn’t known for it at all. It’s the annual Saturday-before-Halloween street party near the Athens campus of Ohio University. As the Dispatch put it last week:

More than 20,000 costumed students and out-of-towners will pack downtown streets Saturday for the tipsy, if not drunken, revelry of the traditional Halloween bash.
(Randy Ludlow, “Party will test OU’s hard line on booze,” The Columbus Dispatch, Oct. 27, 2006, p. E1)

“Tipsy, if not drunken?” I thought. You’re saying that even if they’re not actually drunk, they’re at least tipsy? I’ve never been to the Athens Halloween revel, but my wife tells me that they definitely do get beyond tipsy, into staggering, vomiting-in-the-bushes drunkenness. Have the partyers begun to show some restraint?

A few seconds later, I remembered the non-literal, idiomatic meaning of X, if not Y: the “X, and maybe even Y” meaning. There is a well-written complaint about this usage in the Columbia Journalism Review here, and further commentary on Language Log here.

In its more compositional sense, X, if not Y is pretty much like X, if Y. They both have the concessive meaning “even if” or “although,” and you throw in a not if it’s needed. The X and Y can be adjectives or adverbs:

This wine is good, if expensive.
This wine is good, if not great.

He did the job willingly, if carelessly.
He did the job willingly, if not enthusiastically.

But along with the extra, non-literal “X, and maybe even Y” semantics, X, if not Y also has additional syntactic possibilities. In X, if Y, X and Y cannot be noun phrases or verb phrases, but in X, if not Y, , they can:

*They questioned his competence, if his patriotism.
They questioned his competence, if not his patriotism.

*She walked, if limped, to the finish line.
She walked, if not ran, to the finish line.

In the examples above, there is always some kind of gradient that X and Y are located on: on the scale of utility, greatness ranks higher than goodness; on the scale of positive attitude, enthusiass ranks higher than willingness; on a scale of offensiveness, (we are asked to accept that) questioning someone’s patriotism is more offensive than questioning their competence; running is faster than walking. However, in checking out the usage of if not, I’ve come across an additional meaning for it, in examples like these:

If he weren’t so concerned with his girl, he could have lived a long, if not miserable, life as a Broadway attraction. (link)

a warm, if not miserable, holiday. (link)

In these examples, there is no obvious gradient having anything to do with the pairs long/miserable or warm/miserable, such that it would make sense to say, “{long/warm}, and maybe even miserable”. Nor does it make any sense to say, “{long/warm}, although not miserable.” The meaning is more like, “X, but also Y.” In fact, this meaning comes very close to the well-behaved X, if Y expression. (It looks almost like an overnegation, except that overnegations usually come when there are at least three negations in a clause, instead of just the one in these examples.)

So now the situation is ridiculous. On the one hand, we have one meaning of “X but also Y” corresponding to two expressions that would seem to mean opposite things: X, if Y and X, if not Y. Furthermore, the latter expression, X, if not Y, corresponds to two more, contradictory meanings: “X, even though not Y,” and “X, and maybe even Y”.

4 Responses to “Warm, If Not Miserable”

  1. Rachel Klippenstein said

    Ohh… the silly X if not Y construction. I have been puzzled by that one so many times, trying to figure out if a given instance was intended as ‘X but probably not also Y’, or ‘X, and probably also Y’, and resigning myself to understanding it indeterminately as ‘X and maybe also Y, or not’.

  2. dave said

    i always think of it as ‘x, if not, y’. but i think i sort of shoe horn that in, totally ignoring the pronunciation of the phrase.

  3. Ran said

    All of your examples sound perfectly natural and make perfect sense to me, except for “She walked, if not ran, to the finish line” and the contents of the last box. In the quotes in the last box, I think the writers simply messed up: either they meant to write “if miserable” and they messed up, or they ought to have meant it and they simply don’t have a good grasp of the rhetorical figures in question.

  4. Jaŋari said

    I think ‘X, if not Y’ is literal. I mean, if you think about the logic of it, X is a necessary condition for Y, so in acheiving Y, if it is a state such as ‘drunk’, then you have to intermediarily go though the state X, tipsy. So, “Tipsy, if not drunk” to me at least, conveys the correct meaning that events will tend toward drunkenness, but if they do not reach drunkenness, tipsiness is still assured.
    As for the aberrant examples, well, no common phrase is universally understood to have the same meaning.

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