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My high school students still reckon Lande’s two motivations for ‘unless’ = ‘if not’ (below) too abstract, formalistic! Thus I need a third, but simpler, motivation with merely etymology. But how do I motivate with these etymology quotations? I never studied linguistics. How do I teach how and why does “less than” mean “if not”?

We turn now to unless. The construction developed toward the end of the Middle English period, in the early fifteenth century. At this stage it is a comparative, lesse than, or in/on/of lesse than.9

Traugott E.C. (1987) “UNLESS and BUT conditionals: a historical perspective.” In A. Athanasiadou and R. Dirven (eds.), On Conditionals Again. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, page 145.

By late ME the construction must have become opaque, because we begin to find the forms unless/onless without than. This is presumably in part a folk etymology relating the connective to a negative derivative un- (it can be assumed that the negative inference from the protasis has been lexicalized into, that is, has taken on a morphological form of, the prefix of the conjunction).

Idem, page 156.

As we have seen, unless derives from less than, and un- has no historical origin in a negative.

Id. 157. See also Etymonline.

mid-15c., earlier onlesse, from (not) on lesse (than) "(not) on a less compelling condition (than);" see less. The first syllable originally was on, but the quality of negation in the word and the lack of stress changed it to un-.

Lande N.P. Classical logic and its rabbit-holes: A first course (2013), pages 55-7.

In most statements, the word “unless” means if not.

Baronett S. Logic (5th edn 2022), 236

“Unless” is also equivalent to “if not”; so we also could use “(∼B ⊃ D)” (“If you don’t breathe, then you’ll die”).

Gensler H. Introduction to Logic (3 edn 2017), 132.

The word “unless” means “if not”.

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4 Answers 4

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On weird etymologies, there's this old favorite of mine, in a passing comment:

  • Noon means 'The Ninth Hour'
  • Tragedy means 'the song of the wild goat'
  • Nice comes from the Latin for ignorant
  • Pamphlet comes from a Latin phrase for a love poem
  • War comes from the Germanic root meaning to confuse

In short etymology can be interesting and sometimes illuminating. But one should not confuse it with semantics and the process of conveying knowledge ie. education.

So evidently, the etymological approach is not very convincing for unless. As others have suggested, drop it and stick to current usage practice. To which I'd add, education is fundamentally empirical inasmuch as the teacher must start from where they finds the student. This is true even for Platonic subjects like math, logic. For language questions its doubly so since most in-use languages are a mess of historical happenstance: Here's an extreme example of English irregularity — the pronunciations of -ough. It can be fun to go through such with students but not to try to change anything!

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  • the pronunciations of -ough. It can be fun to go through - coincidence, or deliberate?
    – TKoL
    Jan 4 at 11:12
  • @TKoL I'm not sure what (if) you're asking. Languages have coincidental irregularities. These irregularities are irregularly distributed across languages. (And even ages for one language — just hear a 50s Clint Eastwood American Western) Eg English is phonetically wild, Spanish less so, Latin still less (I believe). And Sanskrit (& generally Indic languages) are very phonetically exact. As a result Indians tend to get bewildered by the irregularities of English. (Dunno if that comes close to ur question)
    – Rushi
    Jan 4 at 11:30
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    @TKoL Oughff! Your thought(!) was not mine. Thoroughly(!!) unintentional.
    – Rushi
    Jan 4 at 12:26
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    @TKol With respect, I disagree that "evidently, the etymological approach fails for unless." Evidently, the etymological approach works for unless! I am gobsmacked that two answers here belittle the etymological approach, when it works here. Unless was initially "onless than", as in "you can't drive on less than 14 years old". The claim is "you can't drive", which is claimed to be true if you don't satisfy the condition "14 y.o.". "A unless B" has retained this meaning of "A is true, if B isn't satisfied". I am no linguist either, but is my analysis not correct? Jan 5 at 2:57
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    @Rushi Comment 1. "And I still don't see it very related to the current usage of unless." Why not??? I explained how unless = "if not", which is printed by the 3 textbooks overhead. Did you not peruse the quotations from the 3 textbooks above? Comment 2. Please edit your last para. which is wrong? Please delete "So evidently, the etymological approach fails for unless. As others have suggested, drop it and stick to current usage practice. " ? Jan 8 at 6:15
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You could try showing your students the following sequence of statements, all of which should be intuitively equivalent if your students are native English speakers:

  1. A unless B
  2. A is true, unless B is true.
  3. A is true except when B is true.
  4. If B is not true, that's not the exception case, so "A is true" must hold in that case.
  5. If not B, then A
  6. A if not B.
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    With respect, your lengthy sequence is overcomplex, and can be streamlined. What do you think of my comment ? Jan 5 at 2:54
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I doubt whether appealing to etymology is going to help. Lots of English words have changed their usage so much over time that they can be considered to have quite different meanings. You would probably be better off just providing plenty of examples from modern English. For example,

Unless I am mistaken, that is a grizzly bear. If I am not mistaken, that is a grizzly bear.

Unless you hurry, you will miss the train. If you don't hurry, you will miss the train.

Swimming here is forbidden unless a lifeguard is present. If there is no lifeguard present, swimming is forbidden.

Do not call me, unless it is an emergency. If it is not an emergency, do not call me.

As an example of how words have changed since middle English, the word 'and' was often used as a conditional. For example,

Wo hym that is allone! For and he falle, he hath non helpe to ryse.

  • Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde (1385)

But and thow crye or noyse make, Or if there any creature awake... This swerd thourghout thyn herte schal I ryve.

  • Chaucer, Legend of Good Women (1386)

So that, and he be founde faillyng therinne, he shall... be put oute of his office.

  • Rolls of Parliament 5.156 (1449)

In each case, translating these sentences into modern English we would have to replace 'and' with 'if'. This usage seems to have died out by the time of Shakespeare. Though in modern English we can still use 'and' to form a conditional, e.g. "Come any closer and I'll scream".

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    @TKol With respect, I disagree that "appealing to etymology is going to help". Appealing to etymology does help! I am gobsmacked that two answers here belittle the etymological approach, when it works here. Unless was initially "onless than", as in "you can't drive on less than 14 years old". The claim is "you can't drive", which is claimed to be true if you don't satisfy the condition "14 y.o.". "A unless B" has retained this meaning of "A is true, if B isn't satisfied". I am no linguist either, but is my analysis not correct? Jan 5 at 2:58
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Your etymological sources are just saying that the 'un-' prefix here is misleading, but with sesquipedalian jargon. ‘un-‘ looks like our familiar type of negated word, e.g. 'untidy', 'unfair', etc. In fact, ‘un-‘ is not itself a negation, but arose historically from the prefixing of other particles onto 'less'. ‘un-was originally a two-word phrase, usually 'on less' or 'upon less', which compounded together into a single word.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (C.T. Onions ed, 1966) says:

When the phrase had coalesced into one word (onless), lack of stress on the first syllable together with the negative implication of the word led to assimilation to UN-"

Humans tend to regularise words like this, to make them become more consistent with other existing words in their lexicon.

Secondly, as your sources suggest, the phrase or word was originally followed by 'than' or 'that'. Digging into this might illuminate the logical connection. Consider these early examples from the OED:

Chancery Proceedings (15th C):

Robert will not suffre him to be laten to baile" .. [i.e. released on bail] ".. on lasse than he will make a general acquytance" [ = acquittance, a written undertaking].

Malory, Morte D'Arthur (15th C):

Onlesse that our king have more chyvalry, he shall be overcome.

In each case, the outcome depends on whether some pre-condition fails to attain, i.e. is less than, a required minimum. Subsequent usage obscures this idea, as by the late 17th / early 18th C 'unless' was used the way we use it today, without either 'than' or 'that':

[ Dryden (c.1680) ] Nor ever was he known to curse, unless against the government.

[ Swift (1710) ] I was at a loss to-day for a dinner, unless I would have gone a long way.

The earlier 'onless than' form justifies the logical interpretation. Think of it as a decision procedure, something like this: "On [finding the pre-condition to be] less than {specified minimum X} [then] {return outcome Y)". This is easily recast as "If pre-condition less than minimum X, then outcome Y".

The idea works best for quantitative conditions, e.g. more (or less) chivalry, etc. But you can extend it also to yes/no conditions, e.g. has the prisoner provided the written undertaking or not? Intuitively, not doing so is less than doing so. Plainly, 0 < 1. If the condition is a proposition with a truth value, then this interpretation leads us to "If not X, then Y".

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