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For example, "I can't spar with my dead brother, not unless he climbs out of his grave."

I looked up the term "not unless" in Merriam-Webster site and it's an idiom that means "only if".

So from my understanding, I think the above sentence means, "I can spar with my dead brother only if he climbs out of his grave."

What if I remove the not preceding unless?

"I can't spar with my dead brother, unless he climbs out of his grave."

So if the dead brother climbs out of his grave, he can spar with him.

What exactly is the difference between "unless" and "not unless" then? They both seem the same to me, at least based on this example.

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As you say, in this case, the presence or absence of not doesn't change the meaning.

I can't spar with my dead brother unless he climbs out of his grave gives the meaning, but sounds a bit flat, as though his leaving his grave were a likely occurrence. (Compare You can't travel by train unless you buy a ticket.)

I can't spar with my dead brother - not unless he climbs out of his grave! makes the second half of the sentence an afterthought, emphasising that the sparring would only be possible in the event of a supernatural occurrence.

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  • In what cases would the presence or absence of not change the meaning of the sentence? – Max Sep 3 '20 at 1:12
  • When not is used to negate something in the normal way! He is at home vs He is not at home. – Kate Bunting Sep 3 '20 at 8:10
  • I understand how to use "not" the normal way. I meant in the context of my post. Let me rephrase the question. In a sentence with "unless", in what cases would the presence of "not" preceding "unless" change the meaning of the sentence? – Max Sep 4 '20 at 0:34
  • I don't think the combination not unless would ever occur except in that context (an afterthought), or when qualifying a negative answer. "Are you going out today"? "Not unless it stops raining." – Kate Bunting Sep 4 '20 at 7:28
  • What did you mean exactly when you said the second half of the sentence is an afterthought? What makes a sentence or part of a sentence an afterthought? From my understanding, afterthought means "Something done or said that was not thought of originally". Based on the definition it makes it sound like the brother climbing out of his grave a likely occurrence (even though it's not since technically it's impossible). – Max Sep 5 '20 at 1:57
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Unless is used to describe something that will happen if something else doesn't happen. For example, "I will walk to school unless it rains," which means that I will walk to school if it does not rain.

"Not unless" is a little more situational. You would probably only use it if asked a yes/no question, to which the answer is "no" with an exception. For example, "are you going tomorrow?" "Not unless there's food." In this case, the person is saying he will only go if there is food. Outside of such a situation, you probably won't find "not unless."

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Author: skampdavis from hinative

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