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This context comes from the movie "Dr. Strangelove" by Stanley Kubrick It's a phone call between General Ripper and Group Captain Lionel Mandrake.

"Ripper-This is general Ripper speaking.

Mandrake-Yes, sir.

Ripper- Do you recognize my voice?

Mandrake- I do, sir. Why do you ask?

Ripper- Why do you think I ask?

Mandrake- Well, I don't know, sir. We spoke just a few moments ago on the phone, didn't we?

Ripper-You don't think I'd ask if you recognize my voice unless it was pretty damned important, do you, Mandrake?

Mandrake-No, I don't, sir.

Ripper-Let's see if we can stay on the ball."

I don't understand the sentence in bold. What befuddles me is the use of the word "unless". If the question was phrased "You don't think I'd ask if you recognize my voice if it was pretty damned important, do you, Mandrake?" would make sense to me albeit only if the answer Mandrake gives(No I don't sir) meant that (yes he would think that he would ask if it was important)

Does the sentence from the movie make logical sense to you guys?

2 Answers 2

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Yes, it makes sense.

It's equivalent to:

I would not ask if you recognize my voice if it was not important.

Hopefully the two negatives here are clear: because it is important, he will ask.

Now rephrase the second negative as unless:

I would not ask if you recognize my voice unless it was important.

Finally, transponse the first negative into the rhetorical question from the movie:

You don't think I'd ask if you recognize my voice unless it was important, do you?

The negatives still add up to the positive: it is important, so he will ask.

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It makes logical sense. A question starting 'You don't...' expects a negative answer.

You aren't driving the car in your drunk condition, are you? The speaker is strongly implying that the right answer is 'no'.

X unless Y means 'X [only] if Y is not the case'.

'You don't think I'd do X unless Y were true?' is saying 'You are mistaken and foolish if you think I'd do X if Y were not true'

I think you are being puzzled by the double negation of 'don't think' ... and 'unless'. Consider the sentence to mean 'Do you think I would ask if you recognise my voice if it wasn't important?'.

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  • Yes, exactly. I was confused by the double negative. So let's see if I get it. The question(in question :)) expects a negative answer, therefore "You don't think I'd ask if you recognize my voice" the answer to this is No even though the answer to "unless it was pretty damned important" could be Yes but we answer No to the entire question as confirmation which includes the answers No for the first part, and Yes for the second, because the question was asked in the negative and only in this way we can confirm everything that General Ripper said. Is that correct? Sep 28, 2022 at 9:56

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