“He was smart if not exactly brilliant.” In this sort of expression, “if not” links a weaker with a stronger word with a related meaning. Other examples: “unattractive if not downright ugly,” “reasonably priced if not exactly cheap,” “interested if not actually excited.”
But this sort of “if not” is often misused to link words that don’t form a weaker/stronger pair: “obscure if not boring,” “happy if not entertained,” “anxious if not afraid.” The linked terms in these examples do have some logical relationship, but they do not form a weaker/stronger pair.
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This week on the podcast we go back in time and discuss a great George Eliot sentence.
This is the tenth year of the Common Errors in English Usage calendar. To celebrate, we are bringing back some of our favorite interesting, funny, but sometimes merely silly entries through the years before going on hiatus in 2016.
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