William of Ockham

On Quantity

Latin Grammar: Usage of nisi

Hoc enim videtur nimis artare divinam potentiam dicere quod una re producta a Deo habente partes distinctas realiter Deus non possit facere eas distare localiter nisi dando eis rem novam vel nisi unitatem rumpat vel dissolvat.

For it seems excessively to limit divine power to say that having produced one thing with really distinct parts, God could not make them stand apart locally except by giving a new thing or dissolving and destroying their unity.

Using nisi in a conditional sentence makes the entire condition negative, which means that the apodosis is true except in the case at hand, in which case it is not true. It is best to think of nisi like the word “unless” in English.

Nisi can be used in any type of conditional sentence, regardless of the tenses involved. In the example above, nisi is followed by two present subjunctive verbs. This is because the main verb of the conditional sentence, possit, is in the present subjunctive, meaning that we are looking a future-less-vivid condition.

As another example, the imperfect subjunctive can be used with nisi in the protasis and apodosis, in the case of a present contrary-to-fact condition.

future-less-vivid: Conditional that describes what would happen if something else happened; uses present subjunctive. Si tu adsis (protasis), laetus sim (apodosis). “If you should be here, I would be happy.”
contrary-to-fact: Conditional describing consequence of something that is not true; uses imperfect subjunctive. Si tu adesses (protasis), laetus essem (apodosis). “If you were here, I would be happy.”

Exercise: Fill in the correct verb forms in all of the following sentences:

1. Certe moriemur nisi (pugnare).

2. Asper essem, nisi te (amare).

3. Difficilis esset discedere nisi te (sequi).

4. Non potes discere nisi (studere, tu).

5. Nisi meum amicum (venire), non poterimus ludum incipere.

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