"Legal if not arcane"?

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Gigi Douban, "Tim Cook goes to Washington", Marketplace Morning Report 5/21/13, commented on Apple's tax-avoidance techniques (basically stashing profits overseas and arranging to pay no taxes on them, by transferring intellectual property assets to an paper subsidiary in Ireland and then paying extensive royalties to this foreign aspect of itself, which through a quirk of Irish law is not "tax resident" anywhere):

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All of this is perfectly legal, if not arcane, says Robert Pozen, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Four different readers wrote to suggest that Mr. Pozen probably meant "legal, if arcane". I agree with them, but the construction is a curious one, and so it takes a bit of digging to make an argument either way.

The relevant sense of "A if not B" means something like "A or even B", where B is (in context) a stronger form of A, and the implication is that "it might well be B, but I'll only insist on A":

We look for unusual if not unique product and market opportunities
The origins of slang words more often than not are difficult if not impossible to pin down
Several researchers have already suggested that these entities are due to similar if not identical mechanisms.

Sometimes, the meaning is more like "it's A, even though I concede that it's not B (which would be even better/worse)"

There's all kinds of behavior going on that could be suggested as inappropriate, and dangerous if not illegal.
Sam'l manages the unusual if not unprecedented achievement of embodying both comic and romantic lead.
This was their pattern, bearable if not pleasant.

But in either case, "A if not B" means that B is stronger than A along some relevant continuum — and I can't think of any way to interpret "All of this is perfectly legal, if not arcane" so that being "arcane" is a contextually stronger way to be "legal".

Without the negation, "A if B" (in the relevant sense) implies that B is a concession that weakens A:

Criminologists have shown little interest in chronicling this pervasive if minor crime.
The Democratic Congress could say that it had passed some important if unappreciated elements of the Clinton agenda.
Green notes that the non-believers were and are a small if influential minority in the Democratic Party.

On this pattern, "All of this is perfectly legal, if arcane" is a perfectly coherent way for Mr. Pozen to say that Apple's tax-dodging strategies are legal, although he concedes that they are "arcane", i.e. "Understood by only a few", or perhaps "Requiring secret or mysterious knowledge". (I myself lack the secret or mysterious knowledge needed to set up a tax-free Irish subsidiary of myself, and then make large payments to it that I can treat as deductable business expenses. I couldn't do this on anything close to Apple's scale — $74 billion over the 2009-1012 time period — but every little bit helps — and apparently it's "legal if arcane", though apparently not for ordinary citizens.)

Thus in the end, "legal if not arcane" is an overnegation of a new type.

By the way, the following pair helps to understand that the relevant uses of "A if B" and "A if not B" involve senses of if that are closely related if not identical:

The holiday shopping season appears to be off to a solid if not spectacular start.
He is a solid if unspectacular fielder and an alert baserunner.


  1. Carl said,

    May 28, 2013 @ 6:19 pm

    "Arcane if not illegal"

  2. Rod Johnson said,

    May 28, 2013 @ 6:27 pm

    It's odd, but "legal, if arcane" feels a little grammatically iffy to me without a modifier. "Legal, if somewhat/kinda/pretty/not arcane" are all fine.

  3. Ben Zimmer said,

    May 28, 2013 @ 10:20 pm

    I'd go with "legal, albeit arcane."

  4. James said,

    May 29, 2013 @ 3:35 am

    albeit jumped into my mind, too.

    I agree that "… if arcane" is slightly off. I wonder whether that construction wants at least a hint of the negative.

    ? Illegal, if usual.
    Legal, if unusual.
    ? Simple, if eventful
    Complicated, if uneventful

    It does seem to me that the protasis wants something negated.

  5. Rod Johnson said,

    May 29, 2013 @ 9:06 am

    Or quantified, if that's the right word for degree modifiers of adjectives (of which negation might be considered a type).

  6. Lane said,

    May 29, 2013 @ 12:08 pm

    I did a little unscientific experiment,


    asking readers to explain what they understand of this sentence.

    "I'm a good tennis player, if not a great one."

    (Free of any other context.)

    44 people thought that the default interpretation was

    (a) I'm a good tennis player, and may even be a great one.

    17 thought it meant

    (b) I'm a good tennis player, though not a great one.

    Several people insisted that it could only have one of these two meanings. A few others point out that the ambiguity would probably disappear in speech.

    But still, with a prescriptive hat on, I recommended that any usage this likely to confuse should be avoided. Context doesn't even always clear it up.

  7. Rod Johnson said,

    May 29, 2013 @ 8:32 pm

    The scalarity of the adjectives is playing some role there (note *I'm a good tennis player, though not a poor one which is otherwise consistent with (b)). In fact, I think pragmatic factors are dominant here. What would happen if the adjectives in the two clauses were unrelated, as in

    (c) I'm smart, if not attractive.

    My guess is that people will find this confusing, mainly. But

    (d) I'm smart, if not especially attractive

    seems consistent only with the (b) reading above. Similarly with

    (e) I'm a doctor, if not a very good one.

    I don't know, the more of these I read, the less sense they make to me.

  8. oulenz said,

    May 30, 2013 @ 11:21 am

    @Lane I find this ambiguity terribly frustrating, because I always have to stop and think what the writer meant, and often the issue simply cannot be resolved.

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