Definitions

from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

  • conj. Except on the condition that; except under the circumstances that: "Exceptional talent does not always win its reward unless favored by exceptional circumstances” ( Mary Elizabeth Braddon).
  • prep. Except for; except.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

  • conj. Except on a specified condition; if not.

from the GNU version of the Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • conj. Upon any less condition than (the fact or thing stated in the sentence or clause which follows); if not; supposing that not; if it be not; were it not that; except.

from The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia

  • If it be not that; if it be not the case that; were it not the fact that; if … not; supposing that … not.
  • For fear that; in case; lest.
  • [By omission of a verb, implied in the context, unless may have the force of ‘except,’ ‘but for’: as
  • Synonyms Except, Unless. Except could once be used as a synonym for unless, but the words have now drawn entirely apart. Unless is only a conjunction; except is only a preposition. Except introduces an exception to a statement which is otherwise general: it may be followed by a clause when connection is made by a particle, as when, that, as, while, or especially another preposition: the omission of such connective makes the structure archaic. Unless introduces a clause, or the abbreviation of a clause, indicating a limitation or condition.

Etymologies

Middle English unlesse, alteration (influenced by un-, not) of onlesse : on, on; see on + lesse, less; see less.
(American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)
onlesse, from on lesse, from on a less condition (on became un-) (Wiktionary)

Examples

  • You continue thus to deal out the entire pack in successive rows, each row completely blocking the preceding one unless the removal of a card releases the one above it, or _unless the removal of cards in the upper rows_ (Rule II) releases that card from above.

    Lady Cadogan's Illustrated Games of Solitaire or Patience New Revised Edition, including American Games

  • The most important formality in English law, in making contracts for the sale of goods, with which a broker must comply, in order to make the contract legally enforceable by his principal against the third party, is contained in section 4 of the Sale of Goods Act 1893, which (in substance re-enacting section 17 of the Statute of Frauds) provides as follows: -- "A contract for the sale of any goods of the value of ten pounds or upwards shall not be enforceable by action unless the buyer shall accept part of the goods as sold, and actually receive the same, or give something in earnest to bind the contract, or in part payment, or _unless some note or memorandum in writing of the contract be made and signed by the party to be charged or his agent in that behalf_."

    Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition, Volume 4, Part 3 "Brescia" to "Bulgaria"

  • unless shaking your boobage, pouting your lips, and giving faintly dead eye stares is acting, Scarlett Johannsson needs to find another line of work..unless its with Woody Allen because the man can take a talentless hack and make her an Oscar winner Mira Sorvino anyone?

    Jessica Biel Is Wonder Woman, To Some Extent

  • a couple of minutes over his financial affairs, unless, _unless_, as you foresaw might happen, he had need of a large lump sum.

    The Blotting Book

  • The conjunctions _if, though, unless, except, whether_, and _lest_, are generally signs of the _Subjunctive_; as, "_If_ I _love; unless_ I

    English Grammar in Familiar Lectures

  • I say this because it's not often we hear anyone use the term unless they are asking someone else to say it to them.

    Agi Smith: Why Don't People Say 'I'm Sorry'?

  • Avoid the term unless it is in a direct quote, and then define it.

    Essential Guide to Business Style and Usage

  • I can't explain why this happened, but it's a huge opportunity for anyone in the 'silver' bracket who's fed up and wants to create a blog or newspaper column so everyone else will know about it but don't use "Fed Up" as your title unless you want a complete set of Rick Perry's teeth marks in your rear end.

    Jeffrey Shaffer: Cranky Is Forever

  • In the future, I will avoid appearing on anything with "morning" in the title unless of course, it's "Good Morning America."

    John Wellington Ennis: Elf GIrl Reverend Jen brings Her Lower East Side Glamour to Hollywood (PICS/VIDEO)

  • The Times editor, James Harding, has defended the paper's plan to place its online content behind a paywall, claiming the internet could "wipe out" the title unless charges are introduced.

    Times editor defends paywall plan

Comments

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  • Edit of yesterday's post:

    When used with a negative verb, it means "if it is not the case that it is not the case", which, as Prof GK Pullum has pointed out to me, is a brainful. e.g. sentence "Unless Mary doesn't study, she will pass". Ouch!

    July 1, 2009

  • When used with a negative verb, it means "if it is not the case that it is not the case", which, as Prof GK Pullum has pointed out, is a brainful. e.g. sentence "Unless Mary doesn’t study, she will pass". Ouch!

    June 30, 2009

  • Derives, I read, from the words 'upon less' and has nothing to do with the prefix 'un'.

    March 8, 2008