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Weird Conditionals: If-Clauses That Are Always True

When you say something like "If you need help, my name is Jill," you aren't using if the way we normally think of using it. Your name is Jill no matter what. Syelle Graves explains what is going in this type of sentence.

By
Syelle Graves, read by Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #464

Other Tense Pairings in If-Clauses

Although these three are recognized as the most standard if-clauses, there are other interesting ways to construct if-clauses too. One is using the simple present in both clauses. For example, you can use if to express that one situation not only causes another, but that it always does so, such as when explaining physical properties, like this:

(7) If you water plants too much, they die.

Some grammarians call this the “Zero Conditional.” (1) Also, note that the second clause relies on the condition outlined in the first clause. The plants only die if you water them too much. This kind of sentence may be less common, because the if means the same thing as when, and using when can seem more natural, at least for some English speakers (“When you water plants too much, they die”). Alternatively, using the first type of if-clause we mentioned (“If you water plants too much, they will die”) may seem more natural to many people.

We had an article a few years ago that talked about how many speakers use simple past tense instead of pluperfect when they use the past hypothetical conditional, and it includes an example of yet another tense combination, which is simple present plus present progressive:

(8) If Squiggly knows the answer, he isn’t saying.

In that one, the second clause still expresses something that relies on the if-clause being true.

Some Conditional Clauses Are Always True

We can now return to today’s topic, which is another exception to the tense pairings in the three traditional types of if-clauses, and which, as we saw at the beginning, has an independent clause that is not contingent upon the if-clause, such as this example:

(9) If you are interested in the workshop, there is a flier attached with more information.

This one is unusual because whether or not the if-clause is true, the independent clause expresses a continuously true state. The flier is attached whether anyone is interested or not. In fact, you could express that with various past tenses too, like this:

(10) If you are interested in taking the workshop, I attached a flier to this e-mail.

That past-tense part simply expresses the state of the flier, in that it is attached to the email. 

Linguist Mark Liberman says this type of sentence is often called a “relevance conditional.” He explains that the if-clause being true is not necessary for the independent clause to be true; rather, context, or “conversational relevance,” triggers a relationship between the two clauses. (3) Another theory is that there are words omitted from the independent clause, but still implied. For example:

(11) If you are interested in taking the workshop, [you will also be interested to know that] I attached a flier to this e-mail.

That shop clerk’s sentence could be explained like this: “If you need any help, [it will be relevant for you to know that] my name is Jill.” Other linguists call these “biscuit conditionals,” because of this British English example, which is oft-repeated in the linguistic community: 

(12) There are biscuits in the cupboard if you want them. 

The order of the clauses happens to be reversed in this example (hence the absent comma), and it has that same funny reading, which is that the independent clause is true regardless of whether the if-clause is true. So next time you hear this construction, you can choose to observe it in quiet, or joke back, by saying: “And what if I do not want any? Where are the biscuits then?” (4)

That piece was written by Syelle Graves, who is a linguist and professor at the City University of New York at LaGuardia College.  http://syellegraves.ws.gc.cuny.edu/

References

  1. Conditional Sentences. My English Pages. http://www.myenglishpages.com/site_php_files/grammar-lesson-conditionals.php#.VL_033uGMXg (accessed March 22, 2015.)
  2. Conditional sentences, if-clauses type I, II, III. http://www.englisch-hilfen.de/en/grammar/if.htm (accessed March 22, 2015).
  3. Demitri Martin. The Guardian.com http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2005/aug/25/comedy.edinburghfestival2005 (accessed March 22, 2015).
  4. DeRose, K., & Grandy, R. (1999). Conditional assertions and “biscuit” conditionals. NOÛS 33:3, 405–420.
  5. Fitzpatrick, M. (2011). Engaging Writing 1. White Plains, NY: Pearson Longman.
  6. Franke, M. (2007). The pragmatics of biscuit conditionals. Proceedings of the Sixteenth Amsterdam Colloquium, 91–97.
  7. Kolln, M. & Funk, R. (2012). Understanding English Grammar. 9th ed. New Jersey: Pearson.
  8. Liberman, M. (2009). If you think about it. Language Log. http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1469 (accessed March 22, 2015).
  9. Myler, N. (2015). Personal correspondence.
  10. Predelli, S. (2009). Towards a semantics for biscuit conditionals. Philosophical Studies 142(3), 293–305.
  11. Slocum, P. (2015). Personal correspondence.
  12. Wisniewska, I., Riggenbach, H., & Samuda, V. (2007). Grammar Dimensions 2. Ed. D. Larsen-Freeman. Boston: Cengage.

 

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