Let there be given this sentence (which came from an English-Chinese dictionary):

The contest has become personalised, if not bitter.

Then what does the phrase if not mean?

Seeking after is a general guide or rule of such usage.

  • 1
    Unfortunately, if not is ambiguous, and it may not be possible to tell which meaning is intended without context.
    – user230
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 21:50

7 Answers 7


Let's look at simpler example -

Try to finish at least 10 chapters from that book, if not all.

This means if all chapters are not possible, try to finish at least 10.

That smell (from a rotten thing) can cause nausea, if not vomiting

This means that that smell is likely to cause vomiting but if it does not, at least it can causes nausea. In other words, that smell is capable at least to cause nausea but it can also go closer to vomiting or in worst cases, it can cause vomiting.

[Part A of sentence,] if not [part B of sentence].

In such cases, the part B is expected or desired but then actually part A is likely to happen.

I'll pick you at 1900 hr, if not earlier.

This simply means the latest will be 1900 hr. The speaker wants to say that he'll try to pick the listener earlier but not later than 7 pm.

Another such example may be - I'm a good tennis player, if not a great one.

So, in your sentence, the contest did not turn bitter but at least got personalized.

A later edit (from J.R. and user42307's input): The sentence may also mean that the contest is on the verge of getting bitter (nausea's example) or has become bitter.

  • Nope, It doesn't mean anything but a facetious way of backing out of something you've really just gone and said already.
    – doc
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 8:51
  • 1
    The sentence certainly does not imply that "the contest did not turn bitter". Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 9:33
  • OK, >I'll pick you at 1900 hr, if not earlier. does not correspond to the usage as requested by the OP. It's nice to know other ways "if not" is used, even educative, but not relevant here.
    – doc
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 9:53
  • 1
    Maulik: Read some of the other answers below. Let's assume there's a point where a contest turns "personal", and then another point where that's ramped up a notch, and it's "bitter". The if not construction can be used to indicate, "I'm not sure which side of the bitter dividing line we're on, but we're close to the threshold, if we haven't exceeded it already." So, rather than the sentence meaning, "The contest did not turn bitter," my paraphrase would be, "If this contest didn't turn bitter, it came awfully close." And, indeed, it could also mean, "Damn, this contest sure turned bitter."
    – J.R.
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 10:12
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    @MaulikV - exactly as J.R. says. Another example of how it could be expressed would be "The contest has become personalised, perhaps even bitter." Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 10:21

Unfortunately the phrase is used in two ways, and especially when written it can be difficult to distinguish them. The hypothetical "if" might mean that "bitter" is acknowledged not to be true, or it might just mean that there's doubt.

So the first meaning is that the contest has not become bitter, although perhaps is close to it. The phrase creates a contrast, and could be replaced with "the contest has become personalised, but not bitter" or "personalised, but not quite bitter".

The second meaning is that the contest probably has become bitter, but that this opinion isn't certain or might be disputed. Then the phrase is used to make a certain statement followed by the less certain one. It could be written, "the contest has certainly become personalised, and quite possibly bitter".

When spoken, listen for which word is more stressed:

"The contest has become personalised, if not bitter" means it's not bitter (or probably not).

"The contest has become personalized, if not bitter" means it's probably bitter (or certainly so in the speaker's opinion, but they choose not to assert it).

  • 1
    You have skillfully deconstructed the subtlety of these "if not" remarks.
    – doc
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 9:18
  • This is incredibly delayed, but is it ever correct to use these "if not" asides without the "not", ie. "if bitter". Is that a colloquialism of sorts, or just plain wrong?
    – EE18
    Commented Jun 1, 2021 at 14:28
  • I feel like there's been an increase of "if not" usage online lately, so much so that I went Googling to figure out in which of these two ways I'm supposed to interpret those. Often, deciding which of these two meanings the author is attempting to convey requires deconstructing the statement first, making it difficult - if not impossible - to figure out what they mean. Commented Jun 28, 2021 at 6:10

"The contest has become personalised, if not bitter"

-The contest has become bitter.

"As a worker, he's lazy and arrogant, if not downright dishonest"

He's downright dishonest.

"I'm disappointed, if not shocked, at your behaviour."

-I'm shocked at your behaviour.

The wide and varied English language gives us this "Get out of jail free" card. Isn't it wonderful? Enjoy!

[Edit] Correcting my mistake in thinking "if not" is always pejorative...

The following, Nothing if not variation might also help:

"She's nothing if not generous"

-She's generous -And I won't tolerate any contradiction of that.

Then there's the "a little" modifier:(without the "not)

"He's diligent, if a little slow."

-He pays so much attention to detail it slows down his work

(or with the "not"):

"He's diligent if not a little undervalued."

-He pays attention to his work and his talents are being wasted on this menial work

Or the use of both the "at least" and the "if not a little" modifiers:

"At least the band is relentless if not just a little funny."

-The band isn't very good but never gives up and makes me laugh.

  • Yes. I'd go one step further, and break it down like this: As a worker, he's lazy and arrogant, if not downright dishonest is pretty much another way of saying: He's not just lazy and arrogant – he's downright dishonest, too. This particular usage of if not can be used to emphasize multiple negative (or positive) qualities being used by the speaker. Usually those qualities are somewhat related or intertwined, though the one after the if not is meant to have the strongest emphasis. Your three examples are helpful, if not enlightening.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 9:49
  • @J.R. Frankly I associate this manner of speech with people I avoid because of their negativity; as you say multiple negative (or positive) qualities may be alluded to. However, try as I might, I can't for the life of me remember the "if not" technique being used flatter, praise or ennoble anybody.
    – doc
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 10:19
  • "His innate greatness was not single, but manifold, not concentrated, but divided .. He had his own ideal, and more than most men made it actual; and this he did by true wisdom. He was a sage if not a saint; though prudent he was neither worldly nor selfish." (Henry Matson)
    – J.R.
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 10:29
  • @J.R. Yes, the "if not" clause can truly edify.
    – doc
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 10:49

[A] if not [B].

[A] is certain while [B] is not certain but may be possible. The contest has certainly become personalized. It might also be getting bitter.

Usually [B] is a more extreme interpretation of A.

My answer is good, if not the best.


The sentence containing "if not" is a short way of expressing the following sentiment:

The contest has become personalised. You might even say that it has become bitter, though in my opinion it hasn't quite reached that point yet.

  • 2
    Or (as has been said in other comments), "The contest has become personalised. In fact, in my opinion, I'd even say it has become bitter."
    – J.R.
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 14:35

The phrase "if not" has two common but essentially opposite meaning.

Consider the sentence.

Ronaldo is a great footballer, if not the greatest ever.

The sentence can mean "Ronaldo is a great footballer but definitely not the greatest ever". This is the usage I prefer.

The sentence can also mean "Ronaldo is a great footballer and quite possibly the greatest ever." I dislike this usage but it is certainly widely used.


If not usually is placed in a sentence to compare the sentence value with another.

Take the following.

A: The food in my house is good B: the best

The food in my house is good, if not the best.

The comparison of my food in my house is being done with the value of being "the best". Therefore the statement says that my food is good, if not the best. This lightly refers to my food being close to the best value through the "if not". So the use of "if not" allows one to compare values with an adjective whilst using another adjective.

Adjective A: Good Adjective B: Best

I am stating that my food is describable by both adjectives but I put adjective B at a higher value by saying "If not". It may seem a bit confusing but it allows for the use of multiple describing objectives to a subject without the need for a break in the flow of the sentence.

Hope the answer helps.

  • Nope, out of context. This sophisticated use of English in this idiom has nothing to do with the banal-everyday constructions you refer to. This is high-level English, foreign-diplomat stuff. The French do have a turn of phrase approaching it, but admit they can't hold a candle to the Brits when it comes to duplicity-with-a-wink, a bob-each way, an insult I feel free to deny I ever said!
    – doc
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 8:56
  • Out of context due to the fact that you are linking the user's need for an explanation on the basics of "if not" to political insight and complex duo innuendo statements? I fear you did not understand the StackExchange section you are in. This is "English Learners" and in this topic, the user explicitly asks for a "general use" guide on the word and here you are trying to complicate the basics.
    – Tushar
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 9:04
  • The OP clearly asked for What does “if not” mean in the given sentence and a general guide or rule of such usage. and does not want to know all other permutations of similar grammar. In General, Learners should understand and repeat the terms of English they hear. This usage of "if not" is extremely limited and so it's easily explained. Please don't drag us off into unrelated usages!
    – doc
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 9:11
  • I can see an issue of you wanting to post "adequately thought through" comments on this post. I would firstly ask you to refrain from posting further comments due to the fact that you are merely extending the debate and drawing focus away from the topic. Secondarily the OP did ask for what you and I both stated and by stating a few examples I illustrated possible uses in a general sense. If you have issues with it, please refrain from looking at my answer. The OP is the intended target for this information and your pointless disruption of this process with half-boiled presumptions isn't good.
    – Tushar
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 9:15
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    Tushar, I strongly disagree with the sentiment: If you have issues with my answer, please refrain from looking at it. On the contrary, if an answer is erroneous, inaccurate, or off-topic, members of the community have a duty to point out such inconsistencies, for the sake of the overall reliability of the site. Occasional differences of opinion are inevitable, but calling two comments "pointless disruption" and "half-boiled presumptions" seems a rather harsh and premature. You are entitled to defend the validity of your answer, of course, but not by telling @user42307 to go away.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 9:35

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