if and when

Dear word sommelier: I have heard that “if and when” is an unnecessary phrase, and that “if” or “when” individually should be sufficient. I read somewhere that using it is a sign of insecurity in a writer, like taking two swords to a fight. But I still see it, and I have to admit I kind of like it in some places. Can you help me?

If is a common enough word. Very common, indeed. It’s a slender word, like the slip betwixt cup and lip, like the narrow chance of something happening, like the gap between train and platform, or between door and frame. It’s like a ligature of fi that has had a falling out or is dancing a reel. But unlike of, it has not experienced any sound changes; we do not say it “iv” or drop the consonant altogether. This is because it is not a preposition, a substitute for noun inflection, leading into a noun phrase; it is a conjunction, leading into a finite verb phrase, which is a weightier thing. It is small, but so much swings on it – between door and frame indeed: it is a hinge.

When is also a common enough word. It, too, expresses contingency, although it does not necessarily express doubt. It is a bit like the wind – partly because it sounds like “wind” and, if you say the wh the old formal way, it whistles hoarsely as an icy gust out of your mouth, but also partly because there will always be wind, it’s just a question of when: if not now, then soon enough.

Either one introduces a subordinate, and generally either one is sufficient, with a different shade in meaning:

If the rooster crows, get up.

When the rooster crows, get up.

If you make coffee, bring me some.

When you make coffee, bring me some.

But then there is this other phrase, if and when:

If and when the rooster crows, get up.

If and when you make coffee, bring me some.

The wind of when bangs the hinged door of if. Banging doors can be annoying. But sometimes they can also be effective.

There is a small argument to be made in its favour logically:

If the rooster crows, get up. (Does not specify that you must get up at that time, just that you must get up at some point.)

If you make coffee, bring me some. (Does not require you to bring me some right when you make it.)

When the rooster crows, get up. (May imply that you should get up at the time the rooster usually crows, even if it doesn’t this time.)

When you make coffee, bring me some. (May be taken as a general directive without implication that you will be making coffee at any particular point in time.)

If and when the rooster crows, get up. (There is some doubt as to whether the rooster will crow, but get up at the occasion, provided it occurs.)

If and when you make coffee, bring me some. (Your making coffee is not a given, but should you do so, bring me some at the time when you do make it.)

There’s no doubt, though, that the real value of the expression is not its logical quality but its emphatic quality and the implications it carries. It doubly specifies, and thus has the insistence and intensity of reiteration. It means there is some doubt as to the eventuality, and perhaps some impatience regarding it. Here are some possible actual paraphrases:

If and when the rooster crows, get up = That bird sure takes its time about crowing and sometimes I don’t think it even does, but make a point of getting out of bed when it finally does. If it doesn’t, well, whatever.

If and when you make coffee, bring me some = At such time as your royal frickin’ highness chooses to put the pot on, don’t forget to bring me a cup before it’s cold.

So you see it adds some extra huff and puff, not just through the f and wh but through the arms-akimbo attitude it expresses. Use it with care. Sometimes you need two swords, but more often you’ll just hurt yourself.

Those who want a bonus round can use the more emphatic and heavily specified expression when, as, and if. The three contingencies really nail it down, and a triad always packs a punch, in rhetoric as in jokes. It’s so strong it is more likely to come after the main clause rather than ahead of it.

It does have a logical justification; the addition of as means ‘do it in the same time span rather than simply starting at that time’. But what it really means is that there is a possibility the occasion will arise, and the act discussed is strongly and imperatively attached to the occasion. So:

Get up when, as, and if the rooster crows = Provided that dumb bird shoots off its beak, take its crowing as a signal to arise, and be on your feet by the time it’s done its racket.

I would not recommend telling someone to bring you coffee when, as, and if they make some, because you don’t really want them to bring it to you as they’re making it.

The real punch of this phrase, though, is captured in this quote from The Rainmaker, by N. Richard Nash, which is where I first encountered it:

She always wears this little red hat. And last night, Dumbo Hopkinson says to her: “Snookie, you gonna wear that little red hat all your life?” And she giggles and says: “Well, I hope not, Dumbo! I’m gonna give it to some handsome fella – when, as and if!”

In other words, only when, not just on the possibility; only as, not just on the promise (and also not any later); and only if, which means it might not happen at all… take that as a challenge.

So keep that in mind – when, as, and if you ever use it.

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2 responses to “if and when

  1. Pingback: This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: 30 Rock, gaslighting, dictionary news | Wordnik

  2. Pingback: Link love: language (51) « Sentence first

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