Они не то чтобы открыть, а даже сдвинуть его с места не могут.

I'm familiar with the expression "Не то чтобы" -- in the sense of "Not that ..." -- placed at the beginning of a subordinate clause, but I assume we are looking at a different meaning here, given its position. Is it close in meaning to "мало того, что ..."?

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    The meaning is equivalent to the English "let alone": "They can't even move it, let alone open it".
    – mustaccio
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 14:04
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    @mustaccio Hi. When you say "can't A, let alone B" in English, the negation in B is even stronger, indicating that B is even more unlikely to happen than A. Does the same go for this Russian sentence with “не то чтобы”? It seems to me as if it's the other way around, given the word "даже" in the second half: "They can't open it, let alone move it". Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 14:12
  • I understand what "let alone" means, and yes, “не то чтобы” has the same meaning.
    – mustaccio
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 14:20
  • @БаянКупи-ка Is "открыть" negated by "не то чтобы" or "не могут"? Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 15:41
  • "не то чтобы".. Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 15:44

3 Answers 3


First there's a need to clarify the accurate wording of the construction, which should be

Они не то что открыть, а даже сдвинуть его с места не могут

не то чтобы has different meaning, namely not exactly/quite and it's not that

употребляется при выражении неопределённости оценки признака или действия

И не то чтобы да, и не то чтобы нет - Not exactly 'yes' and not exactly 'no' either

Не то чтобы все, но многие - Not exactly everyone, but many

Моря не то чтобы нет — оно далеко и очень мелкое - It's not that there's no sea, but it's far away and very shallow.

Сейф не то чтобы тяжёлый, просто громоздкий - It's not that the safe is heavy/The safe is not exactly heavy, just bulky

Cейф не то чтобы тяжёлый, но сдвинуть его с места они (всё равно) не могут - It's not that the safe is heavy, but they still can't move it

Native speakers seem to confuse the two.

Now the phrase in question in its rectified form

Они не то что открыть, а даже сдвинуть его с места не могут

is translated as

Not only can't they open it, even budge it they can't

If a safe is protected by a code, obviously opening it without knowing the code is a much harder task than moving it, therefore inability to move it is more striking due to being less likely to happen and this is what gets the syntactic emphasis.

Synonymous Russian constructions are

Они мало того, что открыть его не могут, они не могут его даже с места сдвинуть.

Мало того, что они его не могут открыть, так они его ещё и с места сдвинуть не могут.

The adverb мало signifies that the content of the 1st clause is only a part of the problem, while the brunt of the problem is introduced with the adverbs даже and ещё in the 2nd clause.

не то, что always fashions exacerbation, aggravation

Она не то, что маленькая, она микроскопическая - Not only it's small, it's microscopic

Я ему не то, что сказал, я ему это в ухо проорал - Not only i told him so, i shouted this into his ear

compare with the connotation of reservation or abatement created by не то чтобы (essentially the opposite of the one created by не то, что)

Она не то чтобы маленькая, но всё равно по размеру не годится - It's not exactly small, but still doesn't meet the size

Я ему не то чтобы сказал, а так, намекнул - It's not that i told him so, just hinted

  • Good start but then it goes a bit off. You imply a person speaking out that phrase is making a mistake. But he is not, he was pronouncing "Они не то что бы открыть, а даже...." - granted both "что бы" and "чтобы" sound the same exactly, and that is the root of TS'es confusion, he heard correct phrase but wrote it down a bit off. So, I think it was great to start without "бы" at all to put a "normative" example first, but then "что бы" and "что б" had to be added afterwards as optional legit variants.
    – Arioch
    Commented Dec 13, 2018 at 9:18
  • considering the idea of the entire sentence i don't see how чтобы could be correct or idiomatic, ordinary native speakers often don't observe these nuances or probably are simply unaware of their existence... in correct usage не то чтобы fashions reservation or contrast and not exacerbation as не то, что, here's an example of proper use of не то чтобы - "Они не то чтобы не могут его открыть, просто ленятся", also не то чтобы seems to never be followed by даже in subordinate clause Commented Dec 13, 2018 at 10:29
  • not "чтобы" but "что бы" - you have to account that what was written by Con is not necessarily was what he heard spoken actually
    – Arioch
    Commented Dec 13, 2018 at 11:10
  • for the purpose of that sentence бы is redundant regardless of whether it's spelled jointly or severally Commented Dec 13, 2018 at 15:30
  • Sure, it is redundant, but it is legit if the narrator wants it. You say that there is no legit phrase variant with "бы" sound, and there actually exists legit, if redundant, way to write it down. Also, redundancy is part of many figures of speech.
    – Arioch
    Commented Dec 13, 2018 at 16:14

The closest phrase in English would be something like "Not only couldn't they open it - they failed even to move it".

The other similar Russian phrase worth to know is "что там", like in:

Что там открыть - они сдвинуть с места его не могут!


The correct translation would be:

  • They can't even move it, let alone opening it.

Opening is perceived as a more difficult task than moving.

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    after some deliberation i do concede your translation is accurate Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 20:20
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    Considering its word order, can I see "не то чтобы открыть" as a parenthetical phrase: "They -- never mind / let alone opening it -- can't even move it"? Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 20:40
  • @Con-gras-tue-les-chiens, In English, "let alone opening it" probably can be seen as a parenthetical phrase. In Russian, the two verbs governed by могут (открыть and сдвинуть) are peer members joined by the conjunction "не то что ..., а даже ..." One could use some other conjunction, e.g. "ни ..., ни ...": Они ни открыть, ни даже сдвинуть его не могут. Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 12:35
  • As БаянКупи-ка has mentioned, do you think "не то чтобы открыть" is an error here? Commented Dec 13, 2018 at 6:39
  • It didn't strike me as an error at first glance but I agree that что sounds more correct in this context. Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 13:35

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