Posted in English

Don’t Even Think About It, Se Não Way

More jottings from Ciberdúvidas, this time relating to the difference between “se não” and “senão”.

Senão (just one word) can be:

  1. A noun meaning “drawback” or “defect” – the example given in the article, “Não há bela sem senão” menas “there’s no beauty without a drawback” or if you’re feeling poetic, “every rose has it’s thorn”
  2. As a linking element meaning one of several things in english, which all have the common theme of expressing an alternative case:
      • “or else” – Fala mais alto senão não te oiço means “Speak up, or else I won’t hear you”
      • “but (on the contrary)” – Não dá quem tem, senão quem quer bem means “It isn’t those who have that give but to those who really want to”
      • “if not” – O que é a vida senão uma luta? means “What is life if not a struggle? [NB – it only means “if not” in this kind of context though – where it’s essentially doing the same job as “except” – contrast with the meaning of “se não” below]
      • “except” Ninguém falou senão o meu irmão means “Nobody spoke except my brother
  3. Paired with another “nao”, this alternative case can morph into “only” or “nothing but”. For example Ele não tinha senão uma atitude a tomar: proteger a mãe.” means “He has nothing but this one attitude: to protect his mother”
  4. Paired with “Quando” it means “suddenly”. Eu estava quase na escola senão quando um carro atropelou um aluno means “I was almost at school when suddenly a car knocked over a student

Se Não (two words) is a lot less awkward. It means what it looks like it means: “If not” in most contexts we would normally use them. For example the Primo Levi book called “If Not Now, When” in english is called “Se Não Agora, Quando?” in Portuguese.

Some more examples:

  1. Se não fosse um homem, gostaria de ser um sapo” – If I weren’t a man, I’d like to be a frog”
  2. “Tenho cem livros de PG Wodehouse se não mais.” I have a hundred books by PG Wodehouse, if not more

This second one is the sort of situation I would make a mistake in since it looks like one of the examples for senão, but it’s subtly different.

The article gives this helpful tip: Uma regra simples para se verificar esta situação: neste caso é possível introduzir a expressão “é que” entre o “se” e o “não”. So…

  • Tenho sem livros de PG Wodehouse se é que não tinha mais.

According to the rule, that should break in cases where we would want to use senão:

  • Fala mais alto se é que não [???] não te oiço
  • Não dá quem tem, se é que não [dá] quem quer bem
  • O que é a vida se é que não é uma luta?

Hm… I’m not sure. The first and second are definitely wrong, but the third means. “What is life if it is not a struggle”. Has that broken the sentence…? Not completely. It’s subtly different, but… Bit shady, that one.

“Se não” occasionally comes up in an even more separate way where you have a negative statement with a reflexive, passive or pronomial verb (cf this post)

  • Quem se não sente de agravos, não é honrado.

Here the verb is “sentir-se” but the se has gone ahead of everything else. Seems like a tedious and annoying way of writing a sentence to me, but hi ho.


Just a data nerd

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