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If you're still wondering, there's an answer

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April June 3, 2009 10:43 PM

Way back in 2001, a reader e-mailed The Word (the weekly column, not this extremely sporadic blog) to ask about her pet peeve, sentences that go like this:

"I'm going to the store, if you need anything."
"If you're just joining us, my guest is actress Laura Linney."

She thought this ubiquitous construction deserved an official name, and for lack of a better, she had temporarily dubbed it the "inappropriate conditional." Here's what I said:

[Her] complaint is clear enough: In these sentences, the "if" clause -- or protasis, if you want technical terms -- doesn't logically relate to the conclusion, or apodosis. Aren't you going to the store even if I don't need anything? Isn't the interview guest the same whether or not I've just tuned in to "Fresh Air"? In fact, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, of NPR's "Car Talk," have made a running joke of this disjunction: "If you'd like to call us, the number is 1-800-323-9287." "And what if they don't want to call us? Is it still the same number?"

I couldn't improve on her name for it, though, back then; it was in the dark ages BLL, or Before Language Log. Then, the other day, Mark Liberman noticed an example of a very similar construction in the "Stone Soup" comic strip, and he posted about it at the Log, calling it a "relevance conditional. "

He quotes Rajesh Bhatt and Roumyana Pancheva's "Conditionals" from the "Blackwell Companion to Syntax": "They explain that 'The if-clause in relevance conditionals specifies the circumstances in which the consequent is discourse-relevant, not the circumstances in which it is true.'" Or as Dr. Seuss put it, that's why I'm bothering telling you so.

That may not be the last word on the subject -- check out the comments on Liberman's post -- but I'm easy; just having a name for the thing makes me feel better.

P.S. As I was fetching the strip from GoComics, I noticed that commenters at the "Stone Soup" pages were criticizing Holly as if she were a real teenager: "Holly, Had you not slacked off during the school year, you would be Free as a Bird." "Just stop whining." "Why are young girls so lazy, flippant, self-involved?" What's that about? Do these people not know that Holly is fictional and that her creator is already making fun of her bad attitude? People, they're called the comics for a reason!

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column The Word since 1997. E-mail her at

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