Sometimes it’s not easy for non-native speakers to discriminate between the connective elements “unless” and “if not.” Which is correct: (1) The theatre will close unless some extra money is found, or (2) The theatre will close if some extra money is not found? The answer is: both are correct – depending upon what you mean. “Unless” in sentence 1 means “except if” rather than simply “if not.” The speaker focuses on the fact of the closure. Actually, the sentence could have been formulated even without the second part (unless some extra money is found). In sentence 1 the speaker prefers to specify that the fact that can save the theatre from closure is extra funding. In sentence 2 it is implied that the shortage of money is a reason for the likely closure of the theatre. For instance: The theatre will close if some extra money is not found, or it may close if its famous actor starts playing in another theatre, etc. When we use unless, we emphasize that it is this very thing that can stop or cause what is stated in the main clause. That is why the principle clause conditioned by the clause with unless sounds more categorical and absolute than when it is conditioned by the if-clause. Consequently, it’ll be unnatural to say  I’ll be angry unless the bus doesn’t arrive (the state of anger can hardly be your habitual mood which can be changed ONLY with the arrival of the bus). Michael Swan’s grammar book states that we can use unless in sentences that say ‘ A will happen if it’s not stopped by B’ (in our example , The theatre will close unless some extra money is found) but unless cannot be used in sentences that say ‘ A will result from B not happening’ (in our example, the correct variant is I’ll be angry if the bus doesn’t arrive).

For training I may suggest an exercise taken from Streamline English (Destinations) by Bernard Hartley and Peter Viney:

Darren Shaw’s 18. He’s just been to see his girlfriend’s father, Colonel Smythe-Fortescue. He wants to marry Fiona, the Colonel’s 16-year-old daughter. This is what the Colonel said.

‘There are just one or two conditions, young man. Get some qualifications, get a job, save some money. Find a place to live, sell that noisy motor-cycle, stop smoking. Stop drinking, cut your hair, remove those tattoos from your arms… and remove that earring from your ear. When you’ve done all these things, we might discuss it again.’ – ‘I don’t understand…’ Darren said. – ‘Well,’ said the Colonel, ‘I wouldn’t let you marry her unless you had some qualifications, unless you got a job, unless…”, etc……


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