Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Conditionals’ Category

Sara Squint

Posted by Neal on February 21, 2014

In an issue of Entertainment Weekly a few weeks ago, I read an article about Sara Bareilles, a name I recognized from a music video that used to play on the overhead TVs at the gym, back when I used to go to the gym. The song was called “King of Anything,” and aside from having a good hook, it piqued my interest with the mismatch between its title and its lyrics. The title suggested “free-choice anything,” as in “I can do anything I want!” But in the song, it turns up in a line in the chorus: “Who made you king of anything?” Bait and switch! This is negative polarity anything! I even considered blogging about it at the time, but never got around to it.

However, this article wasn’t about “King of Anything.” It was about “Brave,” a song Bareilles released last year, and which was nominated for a Grammy. I found it, listened to it, and bought it. Not only is it a great tune with inspiring lyrics, but as a bonus, there is linguistic commentary to be made on it.

First of all, there’s the Lehrer-worthy rhyme in the first verse:

You can be amazin’, you can turn a phrase in-
to a weapon or a drug.

Love that enjambment!

As you can tell from the title, the theme of this song is bravery, but it always appears (as in the title) as the adjective brave, even in this line, where Bareilles shamelessly turns brave into a noun:

Show me how big your brave is!

By itself that’s not worth a blog post, but since I’m blogging anyway, there it is. The main things I wanted to comment on were from the chorus, which goes like this:

Say what you want to say
And let the words fall out
I want to see you be brave!

The first time she sings it, she leads into it smoothly from the last line of the previous verse, like this:

I wonder what would happen if you
Say what you want to say

I was just talking to my ESL students about open and remote conditionals last week, after having them watch my video about them. What tense is would, I asked them? Right, past. And what time is this sentence talking about? The future. So what kind of conditional is it? Remote: We’re talking about something that’s not likely. Since what would happen is the main clause of a remote conditional, we also expect a past tense in the if clause, to continue showing this remoteness. What we get, though, is say what you want to say, in the present tense: an open conditional. Why did Bareilles say that instead of said what you want to say? The students came up with several good answers:

  1. The way Bareilles does it, you get the repetition of say at the beginning and end of the line.
  2. It’s easier to put emphasis on say, with its open syllable, than on the closed syllable said.
  3. Maybe it’s a stand-alone sentence, not part of an if-clause. (This is definitely true for the later repetitions of the chorus; for here, it’s probably done for consistency.)
  4. In addition to all that, maybe she’s aiming for the semantic difference, starting with a phrasing showing that something is unlikely to happen, and then changing her mind and ending with more confidence that it can and will happen. (OK, that one was mine.)

Finally, let’s look at the Honestly in the chorus. It’s a squinting modifier! Or as I like to call these constructions, a forwards-backwards attachment ambiguity. Should we parse it as

And let the words fall out honestly

or as

Honestly, I want to see you be brave!

Both parses make sense. The song is about telling the truth, so you could easily take honestly as a manner adverb to modify let the words fall out. However, honestly also works as a sentential adverb, like frankly or seriously, so the second parse works, too. In fact, this is the first squinting ambiguity I’ve seen in which the adverb works as both a manner adverb and a sentential adverb.

So which one is it? You don’t get a clue from timing, because in the song there’s a pause both before and after honestly. Of the few written versions of the lyrics that I looked up, most don’t have punctuation there, but they do break the lines so that honestly goes with I want to see you be brave, so I suspect they’re going with the sentential-adverb parse. But honestly, I think the manner-adverb parse is better.

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Attachment ambiguity, Conditionals, Music | Leave a Comment »

Conditional Imperfection

Posted by Neal on November 15, 2013

“Rocco was doing it again today,” Adam told Doug at supper one night. His classmate Rocco has a habit of making contrarian claims, seemingly just for the purpose of arguing about them. “He was saying that Jews can be atheists.”

Maybe Rocco had some kind of idea that an atheist Jew would be something like a fasting carnivore, or a celibate homosexual (or heterosexual or bisexual), and hadn’t quite grasped the concept of criterial definitions. Or maybe he was thinking of Jew in a more cultural sense, like I just read about in this Wikipedia article. Whatever he had in mind, Doug and Adam weren’t buying it.

Adam tried to explain Rocco’s argument, not very satisfactorily, but that was because of the material he had to work with. He and Doug were laughing as they tried to dissect Rocco’s reasoning.

“You’re a Jew,” Doug said, “if and only if you believe in God!”

Well, you can’t say “if and only if” to a semanticist and expect it to pass unexamined. “So … Muslims are Jews?” I asked.

“No, Dad,” Doug explained. He then summarized for me the concept of only if, concluding, “You’ve out-literaled yourself!”

Later on, I drew a truth table for if and one for only if, and showed them to Doug. He found that, after all, he and I agreed about the meaning of only if. So what’s the difference between only if and if and only if, I asked.

“I don’t think there is one,” Doug said.

I drew up the table for if and only if, and Doug understood it, but in his opinion, in ordinary conversation, if and only if was just an emphatic way of saying “only if”.

“I’m with Doug on this one,” my wife offered. In a casual, dinner-table conversation, I shouldn’t have taken Doug’s if and only if in this technical sense.

Technical sense? This was my first inkling that there was more than one sense!

This weakening of if and only if to mean just only if is an interesting opposite to a pragmatic effect that Mike Geis and Arnold Zwicky named conditional perfection. Here’s the canonical example:

“I’ll give you $5 if you mow the lawn” taken to mean “I’ll give you $5 if and only if you mow the lawn.”

Now, in the opposite direction, we have

“You’re a Jew if and only if you believe in God” to mean “You’re a Jew only if you believe in God.”

I’m not totally convinced it’s real yet, though. I checked the spoken segment of COCA for if and only if and got a measly three hits. For what it’s worth, they all seem to have been used in the technical sense:

  1. Republicans in the house are embarking on their own effort, promising to cut spending and raise the debt ceiling if and only if both Houses of Congress vote for a balanced budget amendment in the coming days.
  2. We simply should never have been in the business of saying to a 16-year-old girl,’ If and only if you have a child out of wedlock, we’ll send you a check in the mail.’
  3. we may have now a normative principle that that action is legitimate if and only if it proceeds on this model through the U.N.

What do you think? Have you used, or heard others use, if and only if to mean only if?

Posted in Conditionals, Doug, Lexical semantics | 9 Comments »

If I Had Known

Posted by Neal on July 19, 2011

Back when Doug was in preschool, we took him to the doctor one day for a rash on his face and chest. The diagnosis: fifth disease. Fifth disease? What the hell was that? After Googling it, I learned that another name was slapped cheek syndrome, which made more sense. I didn’t object so much to a disease being called fifth disease, except that that was the only disease I’d come across with a numeric designation. Why hadn’t I ever heard of the first four diseases, or the diseases from the sixth onward?

As it turns out, diseases 1-4 go by the names measles, rubella, scarlet fever, and Duke’s disease, while the sixth is more commonly known as roseola. Furthermore, these numbers don’t encompass all diseases; just childhood diseases that involve rashes. That’s a little better, I guess, but why is it only the childhood rash diseases that got named this way? It reminded me of comics in the newspaper that do occasional running-gag strips on a theme like “Signs You’re the Parent of a Teenager” or “Essential Activities of Summer”, and each strip is labeled with a number. They don’t start with one and go sequentially; they label each entry with a randomly chosen number, as if to say, “The list goes on and on.” Ads in glossy magazines do this, too.

With that in mind, here is the topic suggestion from a reader named Karl, the second winner of my Grammar Girl book giveaway:

I’ve … noticed that 80% or more of Americans don’t use the past perfect form of verbs when the other clause in the sentence is a third conditional. They use the simple past form instead. I find myself doing it when I speak fast. For example, talking about a party which has finished: “If I knew you were there, I would have said hello” instead of using “had known”. Do other English speakers in other countries do the same thing?

“Third conditional”? This kind of conditional sentence is what I think of as a past-time counterfactual. Actually, I’m now moving to the terminology of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, and will refer to these as past-time remote conditionals. Remote refers to the falseness, or at least unlikelihood, of the situation described in the if clause. “If I had known you were there” — but I didn’t know. Anyway, this is the second or third time a commenter has used the term third conditional on me, so now I was finally curious enough to try to find out where this term came from, and what first and second conditionals might be. I still don’t know where it came from; the earliest I’ve found in Google Books is in an 1822 grammar of Spanish.

However, I can now tell you that a first conditional is a present- or future-time open conditional. For example, If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands, or If you touch my stuff, I’ll kill you. It’s an open question whether you are knowingly happy, or whether you’ll touch my stuff. Maybe you are, or will; maybe you aren’t, or won’t.

A second conditional is a present- or future-time remote conditional, such as If you really loved me, you’d do it, or If I won the lottery, I’d quit my job. The implication is that you don’t really love me, and winning the lottery is unlikely.

The third conditional, of course, is the past-time remote conditional. I got all this from an online grammar reference from Capital Community College of Hartford, Connecticut. Now that I know about first, second, and third conditionals, though, not only do I still think the names are poorly chosen and uninformative, but they also miss a fourth possibility: past-time open conditionals. I’ve laid them all out in the table below, and you can verify that the bottom left corner is the one that got left out in the cold. It’s the Rodney Dangerfield of conditionals. Not because it has bulging eyes, starred in movies such as Back to School and Caddyshack, and does standup comedy with lots of one-liners, but because it gets no respect. But you probably figured that out.

Open and Remote Conditionals

What’s interesting about present-time remote conditionals and past-time open conditionals (the light green squares) is that they both use a past tense verb form: If he was/were sorry in the examples. CGEL looks at it this way: The past tense has several functions in English, only one of which is to express past time. Another function is to express “modal remoteness”–i.e. unlikely possibilities or impossibilities. Each of those functions is shown in a light green square. (For every verb except one, the verb form in these two squares would be identical. I’ve chosen the one and only verb for which there’s a difference: be, with its was for the open conditional, and were for the remote one. And even that distinction has disappeared for many speakers, who uniformly use was in sentences like these.) When both functions are in play, then a “double past tense” does the job. I show this with the darker shade of green in the bottom right, with the if clause in the past perfect tense: If he had been sorry.

I’ve noticed what Karl is asking about in past-time remote conditionals, too; for example, there was If only we swam as good as we look. Then there’s the old song “If I Knew You Were Coming, I’d’ve Baked a Cake”, which I first heard sung by Cookie Monster on Sesame Street. But how prevalent are these nonstandard conditionals, really? It’s hard to search for any and all conditionals that use a simple past tense or a past perfect tense, so instead I decided to search just for If I knew and If I had known in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), which contains 425 million words from 1990 to 2011. The search turned up 198 tokens of If I had known, 196 of which are past-time remote conditionals, like this one:

This was not a publicity stunt. Of course, if I had known that all of this would happen, I would have done this years ago!

(The other two were indirect questions, in which the if can be replaced by whether, as in, “He asked if/whether I had known about the cozy relationship between News of the World and Scotland Yard.” That’s not an actual example, but I forgot to record the ones I found.)

COCA produced 609 tokens of If I knew. Of these, 48 are present-time remote conditionals; for example:

I’ll say anything on a runway. I’d speak Hebrew or Arabic or Swahili if I knew them, anything to hedge my bets. But today I am too exhausted to bargain with God.

Sixteen of them are past-time open conditionals. Look, here’s one now:

Ethan was just a friend. … And if I knew what was good for me, I’d keep it that way. (past-time open conditional)

Twenty-two were irrelevant. The remaining nineteen are all nonstandard past-time remote conditionals, along the lines of:

We all know Julianne Moore is an Oscar-nominated, Emmy award-winning actress, but who knew that she liked to clean? If I knew that, I’d have given her Tuesdays at my house for a little light dusting.

Extrapolating that last number to the 609 hits for “if I knew”, I estimate that there are 120 nonstandard past-time remote conditionals. Add to that the nearly 200 standard past-time remote conditionals in COCA, we have a total of about 320 past-time remote conditionals. Of them, about 38% use the simple past tense instead of the past perfect. Well short of Karl’s guess of 80%, but still pretty sizeable. And of course, the numbers for what he hears and reads may well be nearer to 80%. Also, when I narrowed the search to If I knew then and If I had known then, I get a total of 37, only eight of which use the standard past perfect tense. In other words, 78% of the tokens used the simple past, right in line with Karl’s guess. I wonder if the signaling of past time by then makes it less necessary for the verb to do so.

To get an idea whether Americans or British used the nonstandard phrasing more, I looked at the British National Corpus (BNC), which contains 100 million words from 1985 through 1993. For If I knew, I got 90 hits, only two of which were nonstandard:

I would never have given him the sweet if I knew there was acid in it.
if I knew what I know now, I would never have left Pontypool.

For if I had known, I got 18 hits. That makes two nonstandard conditionals out of 20, for 10%. So, to the extent that the older BNC data still reflects modern usage, and to the extent that my single example is representative of past-time remote conditionals more generally, Americans are almost four times as likely to use a simple past tense in them as British speakers.

Feel free to run your own searches in COCA, BNC, or other corpora (maybe the Corpus of Historical American English) with other verbs. Let us know what you find. Karl, thanks for your suggestion!

Posted in Conditionals, Diachronic | 23 Comments »

Talks at Appropriate Times

Posted by Neal on April 7, 2011

Doug’s report card came home last week, and on the list of nonacademic, behavioral characteristics, he had a minus for “Talks at appropriate time.” I knew from the conference with his teacher last month that Doug had no problem speaking up at appropriate times. What he does have a problem with is not talking at inappropriate times. I tweeted about the grade:

Glen tweeted in response:

Good point! Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ambiguity, Conditionals, Pragmatics | 6 Comments »

Is If I Would Have Ever Standard Grammar?

Posted by Neal on October 4, 2010

In 1986, I couldn’t escape the song “If She Would Have Been Faithful” by Chicago. I hated it for three reasons. First, it was such a whiny, wimpy-sounding song. Of course, a lot of Chicago’s songs are like that, but second, I didn’t like the theme of this song: “I’m glad my old SO was unfaithful to me, because otherwise, I’d still be with her, and wouldn’t have met you.” I’ll admit, with so many hundreds of songs about love out there, unless you’re going to go farther afield and write about peanut butter, Adidas, or rocks to wind a piece of string around, it’s going to be difficult to find new things to say. Even so, the main thing I take away from this song is that the lyricists were trying too hard. And the third thing, the thing that topped it all off, was the nonstandard grammar in If she would have been faithful.

“If She Would Have Been Faithful” came out just a couple of years after I’d learned about English moods and tenses, and I still thought “Why do they do that?” every time I heard someone say “If I/you/we/etc. would have” when they meant “If I/you/we/etc. had”. The standard way of phrasing the thought in this song title is to use the past perfect tense for be: “If she had been faithful.” That line doesn’t scan the same as If she would have been faithful, but I’m sure that the songwriters could have made it work with skillful use of contractions, adverbs, and song-phrasing; maybe If she’d only been faithful. (For other examples of counterfactuals, there’s If it hadn’t been for these kids or If only we had swum.)

However, over the years I’ve wondered exactly why If I would have should be nonstandard. Sure, If I had is a shorter alternative that still sounds natural, but why should that alone be enough to deny If I would have? Furthermore, you can even make a couple of positive arguments in its favor.

Here’s one. We agree (don’t we?) that you express past-time counterfactuals with a past-perfect tense (i.e. the form with had plus past participle, e.g. had been). Furthermore, the past perfect tense of the modal verb would is would have. Therefore, if you can make a conditional referring to the present time such as If you would listen to me, we’d get along better, then you should also be able to make one referring to the past time, by putting the woulds into the past perfect: If you would have listened to me, we‘d have gotten along better.

The second argument is based on analogy: You can use could have in if-clauses; for example, If I could have helped them, I would have. So why can’t you do the same thing with would have?

These arguments are valid, and at various times during the history of English, ordinary past perfects and would have past perfects have both been in past-time counterfactual conditionals — in both the if-clause and the main clause! Right now, it happens that the ordinary past perfect has the if-clause in the standard language, and that’s why would have is unappreciated there. But in 100 years, the tables could have turned once again. Instead of If you had listened to me, we would have gotten along better, it might be If you would have listened to me, we had gotten along better. For more on the historical development of the past perfect tense in conditionals, as well as more information on the arguments in favor of “would have,” and an overview of what grammar books and linguists have had to say on this topic, I recommend this 2003 paper by Noriko Ishihara.

Despite the validity of the above arguments, though, they still may not be enough to bestow legitimacy on most uses of would have in an if-clause. Consider the difference between If you would listen to me, we’d get along better, and If you listened to me, we’d get along better. For some speakers, these sentences mean the same thing, but for others, the version with would listen carries an idea of willingness—a vestige of the oldest meaning of will/would: to want or be willing to. If the meaning difference is too subtle with the verb listen, try it with the verb die. If you died tomorrow, who would take care of your family? is a grim but grammatically ordinary question. In contrast, If you would die tomorrow, who would take care of your family? sounds like something said by a non-native speaker.

Following this reasoning, the clause if you would have listened to me shouldn’t mean completely the same thing as if you had listened to me, but something more like if you had been willing to listen to me. For that reason, many of the people who argue against if you would have (Glen, I’m looking at you) do it on the grounds that it should be reserved to mean if you had been willing to, and using it to mean just if you had erases a meaningful distinction.

To which the opposition might reply, “How meaningful a distinction?” Regarding our example, if someone is willing to listen, presumably they do listen, so really, how much practical difference is there between if you had been willing to listen and if you had actually gone ahead and listened? In her paper, Ishihara doubts such a meaning actually exists, writing, “Some grammarians seem to believe in the rare ‘legitimate’ usage of ‘would have’ in subordinate clauses.”

Finally, even if this “if you had been willing” meaning exists, it will most likely not occur to your audience. Even if you write “if you would have listened to me” and really do mean “if you had been willing to listen to me,” your audience will almost certainly interpret it with the same meaning as they would “if you had listened to me”. In that situation, you’d communicate your meaning better by just writing, “if you had been willing to listen to me”.

Posted in Conditionals, Diachronic, Music, Prescriptive grammar, Semantics | 24 Comments »

They Swim As Good As They Look

Posted by Neal on June 15, 2009

While I was out and about today, I saw a girl wearing a T-shirt promoting her high school swim team. On the front, it said:

If only we swam as good as we look!

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Comparison, Conditionals, Diachronic, Prescriptive grammar, Semantics | 11 Comments »

Scooby-Doo Counterfactual

Posted by Neal on March 9, 2008

“And I would have gotten away with it, if it hadn’t been for these meddling kids!”


You can hear this line, or variants of it (“…and their dumb dog!”) during the denouement of many episodes of Scooby-Doo. Here’s one that you never hear:

Oh, yeah? Well, it was for us meddling kids, so you didn’t!”

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conditionals, Kids' entertainment, Semantics | 13 Comments »

As Your President…

Posted by Neal on March 3, 2008

The day after tomorrow, I’ll have to make a choice that I haven’t been faced with for years: Which primary should I vote in? The last time my vote in either primary had a glimmer of a chance of making a difference was in 2000. That year, I registered myself as a Republican for the sole purpose of trying to keep George W. Bush off the November ballot by voting for John McCain. It didn’t work out so well.

Now that McCain is in all likelihood going to be the Republican candidate, maybe I’ll call myself a Democrat this year to have a say in the choosing of the Democratic candidate. Meanwhile, I’m still getting recorded calls from McCain, Clinton, Obama, and their friends. McCain started his pitch in one of them like this (after the introduction):

As your president, I promise to govern as a Reagan conservative.

I hope by that he doesn’t mean authorizing covert operations in defiance of Congress. But that’s not the linguistic point I wanted to talk about. I was interested in the As your president. When he said that, I naturally thought, “Wait! You’re not the president!” If he’d said any of the following, I wouldn’t have tripped:

  • As your president, I will govern…
  • As your president, I would govern…
  • As your next president, I promise to govern…

In the first alternative phrasing, the future tense will govern fixes things up, since even though McCain isn’t the president now, he’s talking about a future situation when he will be. You can call the assumption optimistic or presumptuous depending on your attitude toward McCain, but it doesn’t leave open the objection that he isn’t president.

The next alternative phrasing is OK, too, with the conditional would govern. Of course, a campaign manager wouldn’t use this phrasing, since the conditional implies that McCain’s being elected is a remote possibility.

The third alternative phrasing works because even though promise is in the present tense, we’ve fixed things up by modifying the noun president with next, acknowledging that he’s not president now. As for the assumption that he will be, refer back to the first alternative phrasing.

Note that I didn’t say McCain’s actual script was ungrammatical. It was just confusing, because the normal way of interpreting a sentence-initial adverbial phrase like As your president is to take it as modifying the main verb of the sentence, in this case promise. But when you have another clause embedded inside the main clause, other possibilities open up. In this case, promise is followed by another verb, to govern, with I [McCain] as its understood subject. As your president can certainly modify govern; I just had to mentally paraphrase:

I promise to, as your president, govern as a Reagan conservative

The appearance of As your president at the front of the sentence, as if it had been moved all the way out of its embedded-clause home to the top of the main clause, is a case of what’s called adjunct extraction. (Adjunct, for our purposes, is synonymous with modifier, in this case an adverbial phrase.) Other things can be extracted out of deeply embedded clauses, too, like subjects and direct objects in questions:

  • Who did John say that Sarah thought that Bill ordered [missing subject] to read the report?
  • What did John say that Sarah thought that Bill ordered Jane to read [missing direct object]?

Extracting an adjunct is a little trickier, subject to more restrictions. The context has to be just right for it to work. The context here was mostly right. Right enough for me to arrive at the correct parse, but not enough for me to get there smoothly. But I guess the campaign managers figured a split-second of confusion was worth being able to have their candidate say, “As your president, I….”

Contrast this with a funny piece of direct mail I got a couple of months ago, before Obama’s winning streak was in full swing. It was a “census” sent by the RNC to registered Republicans such as myself just to, you know, assess how the nation’s Republicans felt about important issues so they could adjust their policies accordingly. For example, they wanted to know if they should “do everything we can to stop Democrats from repealing critical border and port security legislation?” There’s enough material in there for four or five posts, so this census may show up here again. The item relevant here is this one:

And if we are on the wrong side when the votes are tallied, our agenda will be demolished and America will take a disastrous turn to the left–your taxes will skyrocket as our economy grinds to a halt; the federal government will expand into every nook and cranny of society; Senate Democrats will rubber stamp every radical left-wing judge Senator Clinton sends them for confirmation for the Supreme Court.

Wow, that’s pretty serious. Not taxes skyrocketing while the economy races forward, or taxes down while the economy grinds to a halt (like now), but both. And I didn’t think there were too many nooks and crannies left for the government to expand into after the likes of the Patriot Act–though as Shakespeare said, “The worst is not, so long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.’” (King Lear, Act IV, Scene I). Senate Democrats (but not Republicans) will rubber-stamp (not debate and sometimes approve) every radical left-wing judge (not just radical, not just left-wing, but radical and left-wing; note also the invited inference that the number of such judges will be greater than zero, and will in fact be equal to the total number of nominated judges) Senator Clinton sends them–

Whoa! Now I’m not a Constitutional scholar, or even a serious Constitution buff like Glen or his friends Tom and DGM, but I am pretty confident that senators do not nominate judges for the Supreme Court. To make this sentence Constitutionally accurate, they need to say something like President Clinton or current Senator Clinton. Or maybe even President Obama.

Posted in Ambiguity, Conditionals, Syntax | 2 Comments »


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