Tag Archives: if

Sentence fragments? If you like.

As I sometimes do, I guested into a friend’s online copyediting course as a grammar expert for a week recently. One of the questions I answered was about whether “If you like” is acceptable on its own in any context. The questioner felt that in a conversational context it was acceptable (“Shall we leave at noon?” “If you like.”). Another student said that it doesn’t work because there’s an if but not a then. I said the following:

There are a few important things to remember.

First is that there are many kinds of English, suited for many different situations. To insist on standard formal English in all contexts is like wearing formal wear every day all the time. To use formal English in colloquial contexts doesn’t bespeak class and elegance; it bespeaks tone-deafness and rigidity. Rules are made to serve communication, not vice versa. Get to know the kind of English that is expected and used in each context you’re writing for. The point of editing is to make sure that the text produces the desired effect on the readers. Your job as an editor is to minimize the impedance in the circuit between author and audience. This often involves fixing infractions of rules, but not always. Indeed, sometimes the way to signal the tone of the text is to break a formal rule.

Second is that even in formal standard English, there are many things that are matters of preference, not rules.

Third is that not everything you do with language is a matter of grammar. Spelling mistakes, for instance, are not grammar errors. Neither are malapropisms. They’re errors, but they’re different kinds of errors (and in fact are the kind you can make sure to fix everywhere regardless of the tone and audience).

So, for instance, if as in “I want to know if you’re in town” is not a bad habit you need to cure yourself of for once and for all. The colloquial use of it where whether is the formal standard is very well established, and for some texts using if in place of whether will be the sort of little adjustment you can make to make it seem more relaxed. Bear in mind that “If you’re in town, I want to know” is acceptable even formally (the then can be and often is left out), which means that in the same sense, “I want to know if you’re in town” is also formally acceptable to mean “Let me know in the case that you are in town.” This, I believe, is why it has come to be used in the other sense, “Let me know whether you are in town or not.”

A very common mistake made by people who are eager to be right about grammar is to infer an absolute rule from one case, or to take a rule as learned overtly and apply it too broadly, declaring many common usages to be wrong because they don’t fit it. This is like pulling out a field guide to birds, looking at the picture of a magpie, deciding that all magpies must exactly resemble the exact specific colouring of that picture, and declaring any that don’t not to be magpies (and perhaps repainting or just killing them).

The effective approach is to read widely, see what kind of usages are common in what kind of contexts, and figure out the real rules on that basis. Often the real rule is not so simple and clean-cut; some things that are perfectly standard formal English still provoke arguments among linguists as to their actual grammatical structure.

To address a specific question: “If you like” by itself is a “sentence fragment” because it uses a subordinating conjunction (“If”) without a main clause to be subordinate to. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be used; we use sentence fragments all the time (I won’t say “The more, the merrier,” but if I did, it wouldn’t have a verb!). Only in the starchiest of contexts is it necessary to avoid starting sentences with conjunctions such as But and And, and in those cases only because some people in the past decided to repaint the magpies. In conversation, it is quite normal to leave out established material, especially in responses: “Shall I join you?” “[You can join me] If you like.” In more formal texts, where it is a monologue, not a dialogue, and is expected to convey clearly the logical connection, you would just use a single full sentence: “You can join me if you like.” (I’m not going to wander into the can/may argument here, but here is a full article on things many people think are errors that aren’t: sesquiotic.wordpress.com/2008/12/04/when-an-error-isnt/)

An important step on the way to being an expert user of the language is to read authors you respect in as many different genres as possible. Learning cut-and-dried rules and trying to apply them as broadly as possible won’t make you an expert user; in fact, you risk destroying your ear for the language. You need to be able to hear and read it as your readers will. You won’t be in a position to give them lessons in how to hear it the way you’ve learned to.

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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.

What would you need in order to know if this is right?

A colleague asked about a sentence such as “What additional information would you need in order to determine if XYZ will actually happen?” Should the will also be would?

The answer is that it depends. Is the possibility of XYZ happening also contingent or hypothetical? If it’s something that may or may not happen regardless of whether you make a determination in advance, then “will” is preferable:

If you were a weatherman, what information would you need in order to determine whether it will be cloudy tomorrow?

On the other hand, if XYZ’s occurrence is hypothetical, then “would” is correct:

If you were obsessed with a star, what information would you need to determine if he/she would accept your proposal of marriage?

It’s possible to have a hypothetical with bearing on a real event, so we can’t insist on concord between the conditionals without looking at the sense.

Incidentally, some people will insist that you should always shorten in order to to plain to. In fact, while there are places where the shortening can be accomplished to good effect, there are others where bare to would be ambiguous:

These are the dishes I need in order to cook. [Without these casseroles and plates, I can’t cook.]

These are the dishes I need to cook. [I need to cook these dishes.]

And how about if versus whether?  While whether is more formal and has no possible ambiguity, if is very well established in such usage, and has been used by far better authors than the ones who will tut-tut you for using it. Again, consider tone and clarity.