Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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!”

Or how about a bad guy trapping Fred, Daphne, and Velma, and taunting them, saying:

You’ve failed! It’ll never be for you!

After watching a Scooby-Doo marathon, you may wonder if there’s ever been a case that the Scooby gang couldn’t solve, but you still can’t ask yourself:

Has there ever been a time when it wasn’t for them, and the bad guys got away?

(There are cases like that, of course. Those are just the ones they don’t turn into episodes.)

Idioms usually have restrictions on them. For example, you often can’t paraphrase an idiom without tying yourself to a literal interpretation or just sounding dumb:

  • At the end of the daylight period…
  • I got it directly from the horse’s oral cavity.
  • He saw what someone had written on the wall.

Some of them, like the idiom if it {weren’t, hadn’t been} for, have to be in negative form:

*He took kindly to your compliment.

Usually, though, you can change the tense or mood of an idiom to suit your purpose:

  • He spilled the beans.
  • He’ll spill the beans.
  • He would spill the beans if he knew.
  • He’s spilling the beans.

But if it {weren’t, hadn’t been} for is the only idiom I know of that can only be used in counterfactual clauses (that is, clauses that talk about something that isn’t true). It can be something that isn’t true right now:

If it weren’t for the Scooby Snacks, Fred and Velma couldn’t get Shaggy and Scooby to agree to Fred’s plan to split up.

The understood contrary-to-fact condition is that Scooby Snacks are not available. But of course, they are, and Shaggy and Scooby are on board with the plan. The counterfactual can be something that wasn’t true in the past, as in the first example. The contrary-to-fact condition is that the Scooby gang did not try to solve the mystery. And only a counterfactual will do. Try an ordinary, maybe-it’ll-happen-maybe-not conditional, and it doesn’t work:

?If it’s not for those meddling kids, we’ll have everyone too afraid to come near here and we can look for the treasure undisturbed!

The same goes for an ordinary, maybe-it-happened-maybe-not conditional:

?If it wasn’t for a last-minute meeting, then she left at 5:00, but if one did come up, then she probably left at 6:15.

Do any of you know of other idioms that have unusual restrictions like this one?

13 Responses to “Scooby-Doo Counterfactual”

  1. Matthew said

    That’s and interesting point—I’m now trying to figure out why the restriction is there. But I thought I’d point out that I don’t think your idiom examples apply entirely. “At the end of the daylight period” doesn’t work because “daylight period” changes the meaning and there’s no adequate synonym for “day.” but you can say “when the day is over…” I would say the same for “oral cavity,” which is only one part of the mouth. And shile I may be wrong about those, I’m almost certain that “the writing on the wall” is a reference to the Book of Daniel, when a divine finger spelled out Belshazzar’s doom. “What someone had written on the wall” doesn’t work because it wasn’t just “someone” who wrote.

    Anyway, I just thought I’d throw that in, even though it isn’t really relevant to the main point of the post, which was very interesting.

  2. Ran said

    Interesting! All the more so because the restriction does seem to be purely counterfactuality, as all the of the following fare well on Google:

    – if it weren’t for
    – were it not for
    – if it wasn’t for

    – if it hadn’t been for
    – had it not been for
    – if it wouldn’t have been for

  3. michael said

    “*He took kindly to your compliment.”

    I think I disagree with the star. Maybe I’m influenced by phrases like “took to it” and “reacted well to it” — so “took kindly too” sounds fine to me.

    Part of “if it weren’t for” that makes it tough to reshape is the purely idiomatic meaning. How would you paraphrase it? I agree with Matthew that some phrases don’t bend mostly because the meaning is thrown a bit off — but how would we parse the semantics of ‘if it wasn’t/weren’t for X”?

  4. Glen said

    “Do any of you know of other idioms that have unusual restrictions like this one?”

    Perhaps “be that as it may”?

  5. Ran said

    On second thought, it’s not just counterfactuality; English has two main counterfactual/irrealis/past-subjunctive constructions, and while one seems to license this idiom quite freely, the other does not. Neither “wish it hadn’t been for” nor “wish it wouldn’t have been for” gets any relevant Google hits; with “wish it weren’t for” and “wish it wasn’t for” I can’t tell — each has too many hits in other senses — but there don’t seem to be any in this sense.

    By the way, regarding comment #3, “he took kindly to” does get a fair number of relevant Google hits (albeit less than one tenth as many as “he didn’t take kindly to”).

  6. Ben Zimmer said

    OED is not (yet) very informative about the history of these counterfactuals. Under “for”, sense 23c, you’ll find: “Indicating the presence or operation of an obstacle or hindrance. (Cf. ON. _fyrer_, Ger. _für_, _vor_.) In negative sentences; also after _if it were not_, _were it not_.” But you won’t find citations for the negative usage there — for that you have to go to “it”, sense 3g, “In other expressions in which the subject is undefined.” Earliest given is from 1551: “No one man could bee knowne from an other..if it were not for the accidentes.”

  7. Ben Zimmer said

    Another idiomatic survival of this sense of “for” is “not see the wood/forest for the trees”, dating back to Heywood’s Proverbs, 1546 (“ye can not see the wood for trees”).

  8. Neal said

    Thanks, Ran, for the additional data, and for pointing out that not just any counterfactual will work for if it weren’t/wasn’t/hadn’t-been/wouldn’t-have-been. I didn’t think of plugging it into a wish construction.

    Ben: Thanks for the historical information on for. I looked in CGEL for this construction, and the closest I came was a mention of the synonymous but for. I wonder if the earliest citation of but for is earlier than 1551.

    Michael and Ran: OK. I should have Googled took kindly to before I just threw my own judgment out there. Let’s see, are there other idioms that can only be negative? Of course, there are negative polarity items such as give a damn, but unlike Well, it was for us!, the sentence Oh, yes, I do give a damn! is OK, so I don’t think the Scooby-Doo counterfactual is an NPI.

    Glen: I think be that as it may has gone even further in restrictions, to the extent that it can only appear in that particular form. The be not for idiom still changes tense, allows for different objects of for, and (as Ran observed) works in the alternative counterfactual construction with the fronted auxiliary (were it not for, had it not been for).

    Matthew: You’re right about the origin of see the writing on the wall, but these days, even people who don’t know the Bible story behind it know that it means something like, “understand that one’s future in some place is undesirable.” And (at least for me) when you change it to what I did, the only interpretation I get is that whoever it was read some graffiti, which may or may not have been about him.

  9. Jeni said

    Sziasztok szeretem a skobyt

  10. eu gosto tanto deles tenho ate do♥ escoby-doo 2 monstros a ♥solta♥

  11. oly casswuy canas salsicha fred e a love do fred e velma e scoby-doo♥♥♥……

  12. anna said

    you guys are thinking waaaaaaay to deeply about this. IT IS JUST A KIDS SHOW!!!!

    (and for that matter a very GOOD kids show to me)

  13. […] 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 […]

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