I can't clearly understand why

1) My wife will be angry unless I get home by 7 o’clock. - is not correct while

2) My wife will be angry if I am not home by 7 o’clock. - is correct.

Any guiding line?

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    I would like to know who suggested (1) is wrong? Aug 3, 2014 at 18:16
  • 1
    @JuliandotNot It's from Practical English Usage by Michael Swan, which is a great grammar book for learners (except for this entry, perhaps), imho. Unfortunately, this is not the best example in his book, and I guess that it sounded wrong to him when he wrote it (obviously, he suggested that the meaning of "My wife will be angry unless I get home by 7 o’clock." is "My wife's anger will be the result of me not getting home by 7 o'clock.") -- To understand why he wrote that entry (as a warning for learners, I believe), try this example of mine, "You will die unless you don't get hit by a car." Aug 3, 2014 at 18:58
  • I'd probably say "unless I am home" rather than "unless I get home", but other than that it seems fine to me. @DamkerngT.'s final example sounds wrong because it requires the listener to make quite some effort to disentangle the real meaning of the sentence from the double negative.
    – tobyink
    Aug 3, 2014 at 23:48
  • @tobyink Thank you for the observation. The book uses "if I'm not home" indeed, whereas the marked as incorrect version is "unless I get home". I know that the wife example doesn't make the difference as clear as one would hope. However, even in that example, I'd say (for the sake of learners) that there is a fine difference between a wife who "will be angry unless I get home by 7 o'clock" and a wife who "will be angry if I'm not home by 7 o'clock". Then again, people might perceive things differently these days (from ten years ago, when the latest edition of the book, afaik, came out). Aug 4, 2014 at 0:25

1 Answer 1


Both are correct - if...not is what unless means. But the unless version suggests that her anger is expected, and only my arriving at or before 7 o'clock will prevent it, while the if...not version suggests that my arriving after 7 o'clock will trigger her anger.

  • 1
    I think the point you make is subtle, but true. For all that, I can't see why Michael Swan would single out #1 as "not correct". Would it make any difference if we slightly changed the "default, but potentially avoidable" consequence to something slightly more "predictable", such as "My wife will drink too many preprandial martinis and get stinking drunk and angry unless I get home by 7 o’clock" ??? Aug 3, 2014 at 19:58
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    @FumbleFingers That's a delightful context ... I'm not particularly surprised that even MS should nod. I very often see people here and on ELU , get specific contexts fixed in their minds and write as if that were the only relevant context. (And I'm as guilty as anybody - I did that just this morning.) Aug 3, 2014 at 20:17
  • It's not just Michael Swan, although the above example is removed from the latest edition of Practical English Usage. "I’ll be angry unless the bus is on time." Scott Thornbury "I'll be very surprised unless I get the job." John Eastwood, Oxford Learner's Grammar "I'll be amazed unless Christie wins." Martin Hewings, Advanced Grammar in Use
    – Mori
    May 31, 2021 at 10:17
  • It's my understanding as a non-native English teacher: Using unless in the above examples doesn't show that a feeling would result from something not happening. In conditional sentences, a condition triggers a result, but the above examples don't show this cause-and-effect relationship and that's why learners are asked to avoid them. Please correct me if I'm wrong.
    – Mori
    May 31, 2021 at 11:25

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