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Source: Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software by Charles Petzold

Example:

Electrons from the chemicals in the batteries might not so freely mingle with the electrons in the copper wires if not for a simple fact: all electrons, wherever they're found, are identical. There's nothing that distinguishes a copper electron from any other electron.

That's a very interesting phrase. Could you please explain to me what it really means and how to use it?

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The reason it seems odd is because a few words were left out, namely it were: what “if not for” really means is “if it were not for”.

So it is positing a hypothetical conjecture.

You may even see “if not for” written as “were it not for”. It again simply means “if it were not for”.

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It is used to precede (come before) the reason the previous statement is not true or cannot be so. Think of it as "[This would be true/happen] if not for [this fact]."

Some simple (some admittedly contrived) examples:

"I would buy you lunch if not for the fact that I have no money."

"This glass would be perfect if not for the crack at the top."

"I would take a ride along the ocean road this afternoon if not for the fact that my motorcycle is out of fuel."

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