<< back to the archive list

January 30th, 2008

If not / not available in all or available in not all / ex-Indonesian dictator

by Barbara Wallraff

Cory Padfield, of Royal Oak, Mich., writes: “Please discuss the proper usage of ‘if not.’ It is used in contradictory ways.”

Dear Cory: “If not” sows a lot of confusion. For instance, here it is in a recent Wall Street Journal interview with Carlos Ghosn, chief executive of Nissan and Renault: “It’s a double impact in terms of profit on most of the car manufacturers, if not all of them.” Did Ghosn mean “or even all of them” or “though not all of them”? “If not” can be used both ways, and not even in context is it clear which meaning he had in mind.

The rule about “if not” is this: Avoid it unless it will be perfectly obvious which of the two opposite meanings you intend. The phrase, if not the speaker (here it is again -- am I being insulting or polite?), is untrustworthy.

Bill Schryer, of Wilton, N.Y., writes: “On the radio, I hear the phrase ‘not available in all states,’ especially at the end of insurance ads. If it isn’t available in all states, where are they selling their product? Canada? Mexico? When did the phrase ‘not available in all states’ take on the same meaning as ‘not available in some states’?”

Dear Bill: Another slippery “not.” You might imagine that “not available” and “unavailable” mean the same thing -- but “unavailable in all states” is definitely the wrong idea. “Available in not all states” is more like it, but this version sounds impossibly awkward. “Available in some states” or “in many states” is literally right but gets the tone wrong -- the copywriters might as well add “though maybe not in yours.” Can you learn to live with “not available in all states”?

E.Z. Polch, of TK, writes: “Today I saw an example of what I think is illogical or incorrect usage: ‘Ex-Indonesian dictator Suharto dies at 86.’ To me, this means Mr. Suharto was a dictator, but not in Indonesia recently. That is obviously untrue. What I’d say is ‘Indonesian ex-dictator Suharto dies at 86.’ Care to comment?”

Dear E.Z.: You neglected to tell me the town and state where you live. I wouldn’t publish that information without your permission (though I rarely publish letters whose writers omit it), but I thought I might find out at least what paper you read by searching online for the phrase “Ex-Indonesian dictator” in news sources. This search returned 268 results, including an Associated Press story -- which tells us it’s a fairly conventional way of putting it. In contrast, a search for “Indonesian ex-dictator” got just 21 results.

The problem is that we think of Suharto (that was his complete name) as having been an Indonesian dictator, in much the same way that Bowie Kuhn was the U.S. baseball commissioner and Anna Nicole Smith was once a Playboy centerfold model. Kuhn, when he died last year, was not a baseball ex-
commissioner but an ex-baseball commissioner. Smith was not a Playboy centerfold ex-model or a Playboy ex-
centerfold model -- she was an ex-
Playboy centerfold model.

Take comfort in the fact that “ex-” in phrases like these tends to turn up only in headlines, where space is at a premium. “Former” is almost invariably used where there’s room for it.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

<< back to the archive list