Not, only, unless, if, whatever . . .

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The morning mail brings an apparent instance of misnegation — Daniel Boffey, "May faces tougher transition stance from EU amid Norway pressure", The Guardian 1/16/2018:

The EU also insists that the UK will only continue to enjoy the benefits of trade agreements with non-EU countries unless "authorised" by Brussels.

Given the context, English grammar, and general principles of rational interpretation, the author must have meant either

  1. the UK will not continue to enjoy the benefits of trade agreements with non-EU countries unless "authorised" by Brussels
  2. the UK will only continue to enjoy the benefits of trade agreements with non-EU countries if "authorised" by Brussels

And in fact the article now reads

The EU also insists that the UK will only continue to enjoy the benefits of trade agreements with non-EU countries if "authorised" by Brussels. 

A screenshot of the earlier state:

As in many other cases, it's not clear whether this is a compositional confusion or the residue of careless editing, though I suspect the latter.

Note that all four constructions are possible (abstracting away from the reduction of the conditional clause):

will only <VerbPhrase> if <Sentence>
will not <VerbPhrase>  unless<Sentence>
will not <VerbPhrase> i<Sentence>
will only <VerbPhrase>  unless<Sentence>

Random examples from the web:

The Igbo will only leave the North if asked to do so by serious minded people.
Bulgars Will Invade; But Will Only Seize Saloniki Line Unless Attacked by Greeks.
I will not accept if nominated.
Windows 10 will only boot if selected from the BIOS boot menu.

Obviously there are differences of scope, and providing a representation of the scope differences would be a good exam question in a semantics course.

Distinguishing contextually correct from contextually incorrect combinations looks like a challenging NLP problem — and one where it's easy to general test data for a challenge, since we can swap only/not or if/unless in real-world examples.

[h/t Bob Ladd]

 



21 Comments

  1. SCF said,

    January 16, 2018 @ 10:50 am

    cat nap token seems compositionally straightforward to me — the little one will only nap briefly unless she's held, in which case she'll take a long nap.

    [(myl) You're right — I've modified the post to delete the example.]

  2. KevinM said,

    January 16, 2018 @ 11:00 am

    The problem, I think, arises primarily because the long verb phrase between "only" and "unless" blunts the impact of the error. Placing the "only" later in the sentence, after "countries," would have made the problem instantly clear to the editor or reader:

    "The EU insists that the UK will continue to enjoy the benefits of trade agreements with non-EU countries only [unless/if] authorized by Brussels."

    Of course, this is not a rule of grammar, although it was (mis)taught to me as such by Ms. Grundy back in the day.

  3. John Swindle said,

    January 16, 2018 @ 11:33 am

    UK will only enjoy trade agreements with non-EU nations unless authorized by Brussels to have trade agreements with EU nations as well. (Context apparently rules this interpretation out for those who are following the issue.)

    Bulgars will definitely invade, but, unless attacked by Greeks, will only seize the Saloniki Line. (Is that what the headline did mean? It's beyond living memory, but history buffs may know.)

  4. mollymooly said,

    January 16, 2018 @ 12:07 pm

    I find "only…unless" a good deal harder to parse than any of the the other three; my initial reaction is that it must be a mistake, and only with effort can I extract a legitimate meaning. Is this down to relative frequency of collocation or is there some deeper issue?

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 16, 2018 @ 12:59 pm

    John Swindle: Bulgars will definitely invade, but, unless attacked by Greeks, will only seize the Saloniki Line. (Is that what the headline did mean? It's beyond living memory, but history buffs may know.)

    Yes, the New York Times site won't show you the article, but the Google search results for "will only seize saloniki line" show the beginning:

    "The Deutsche Tages Zeitung of Berlin, a copy of which has been received here, says that Bulgarian troops are entering Greek territory. It adds that if they are not attacked by Greek troops they 'll confine their operations to seizing the Saloniki l[ine]"

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 16, 2018 @ 12:59 pm

    Sorry about the italics.

  7. John Swindle said,

    January 16, 2018 @ 1:19 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: Thanks.
    I suspect "only … unless" is made harder to parse by having to choose a meaning for "only."

  8. Gregory Kusnick said,

    January 16, 2018 @ 2:44 pm

    Another (unlikely) interpretation: The UK can have their trade agreements with non-EU countries, but having those agreements "authorised" by Brussels takes all the fun out of them.

  9. Keith said,

    January 17, 2018 @ 4:27 am

    @Mark L

    As in many other cases, it's not clear whether this is a compositional confusion or the residue of careless editing, though I suspect the latter.

    I read that article the other morning, and had the same reaction to it. But this was in the Grauniad, remember, so the text as originally submitted by the journalist could have been an mess even before the "editor" got his or her hands on it.

    That's assuming there is still an editor who corrects and improves the text, to make it more easily understood.

    Though I suspect that the nearest thing to an editor that a moder-day journalist gets to see is a chelling specker on a computer, and we all now how useful they can bee.

  10. Ralph Hickok said,

    January 17, 2018 @ 8:20 am

    IMHO, "will only" is bad combination because it almost invariably to "only" being misplaced. E.g., one of the random samples from the web would be better phrased as "Windows 10 will boot only if selected from the BIOS boot menu."

  11. Rose Eneri said,

    January 17, 2018 @ 9:01 am

    The all to pervasive inaccurate placement of "only" is one of my pet peeves. Right after reading this LL post, I went to one of my daily-read sites, EurekAlert.org. The first article I read was about Alzheimer's research. Here I encountered this sentence: "Much to our surprise, in studying the fate of eight neuronal and synaptic markers in our subjects' prefrontal cortices, we only observed very minor neuronal and synaptic losses." So, the researchers only observed. They did not test, did not document, did not think about, did not do anything else? Obviously, what they meant was that they observed only very minor neuronal and synaptic losses.

  12. arthur waldron said,

    January 17, 2018 @ 1:42 pm

    "only if" is in fact the correct solution ANW

  13. Lazar said,

    January 17, 2018 @ 4:56 pm

    @Rose: Eh, that one doesn't bother me as much as it used to. Despite the cliché of Latinophilia being at the root of English prescriptivism, I found that reading some of the mind-bending feats of word order pulled off by Latin poets made me more tolerant of flexible, if illogical, word order in English.

  14. KevinM said,

    January 17, 2018 @ 11:08 pm

    @John Swindle, Ralph Hickock: Like the old song so clearly says, "I have eyes for only you."

  15. John Swindle said,

    January 18, 2018 @ 2:02 am

    But is it "fühl' ich allein nur für dich" or "fühle ich einzig für dich"?

  16. Ralph Hickok said,

    January 18, 2018 @ 8:20 am

    @KevinM:
    I'm sure your comment was tongue in cheek. But, just in casse: A song, of course, is usually equivalent to dialogue in fiction and the character/singer can get away with stuff that wouldn't be acceptable in more formal writing. E.g., Allen Jay Lerner wrote "Hey, buds below, up is where to grow,/Up with which below can't compare with," and I wouldn't tamper with that any more than I'd tamper with "I only have eyes for you." I'm something of a connoisseur of song lyrics and I could cite many more examples off the top of my head, none of which I would tamper with.
    But, if I were working on a copy desk and a reporter wrote, "This is the kind of situation with which the police can't cope with," I'd certainly edit it. And, similarly, if a reporter misplaced "only," I'd move it to where it belonged in the sentence.
    If I worked for the Guardian, I would certainly have reworked that first quoted sentence so that the "only" was in the right location; which, by the way, would also have eliminated the troublesome "unless."

  17. KevinM said,

    January 18, 2018 @ 10:02 am

    @Ralph. Yes, ironic, or just kidding. As, by the way, I think Allan Jay Lerner was when he rhymed "bother me" with "rather be." ("On the Street Where You Live," from My Fair Lady, a musical much concerned with matters of pronunciation.) Best, Kevin.

  18. Ellen K. said,

    January 18, 2018 @ 10:34 am

    Though Lerner is American, he was writing for a British character. "Bother" and "rather" are, I would say, much closer in RP than in General American. And he was writing for an American audience. Those two words, pronounced in RP, in the ears of an American, it's pretty much a rhyme. Though, also, one could consider just "me" and "be" to be the rhyme. The near rhyme of "bother" and "rather" before that is an extra.

  19. Ralph Hickok said,

    January 18, 2018 @ 1:31 pm

    @KevinM:

    That rhyme doesn't bother me. I'd rather be concerned with his use of "hung" instead of "hanged" in "Why Can't the English?"

    Henry Higgins would never have said (or sung) "By right she should be taken out and hung/For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue."

  20. Andrew Usher said,

    January 19, 2018 @ 9:01 pm

    If you're being pedantic, it should be 'only when' better than 'only if', assuming the authorisation is not a one-time event.

  21. Chas Belov said,

    January 21, 2018 @ 1:36 am

    @Ralph Hickok: Alas, "Windows 10 will boot only if selected from the BIOS boot menu." is not an example of "will only unless", so we are missing an example of that. How about:

    Females will only mate once unless additional sperm are necessary for further egg production.

    (Amusingly, the first result for a search on "will only * unless" (with quotes) was this Language Log post.)

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