“If” with conditional clause

By Guest Author

This is a guest post by Yvonne Canchola. If you want to write for Daily Writing Tips check the guidelines here.

The tiny word “if” sets many, many language traps for the hasty.

Consider this note:

“If you happen to be in the area, we will be at Meehan’s Ale House. So stop on by.”

Nice to be invited and welcome, isn’t it? But wait! I think this must be a magical reunion: telepathically—or by owl post, my friends will know that, by happenstance, I am indeed close by, and instantly they convene in the place we agreed upon. So really I have no need to RSVP, because somehow they will know, and the gathering will already be in place when I find time to make my appearance.

Of course, my friends’ trip to the pub is not conditional upon my whereabouts, but that is what the use of if suggests. The intended meaning is that my friends want to let me know that they will be at the pub whether my business takes me their way or not. They will be at the ale house. If I happen to be in the area, I can join them.

The problem with this type of sentence is not grammatical; it’s semantic. The part of the thought process that is conditioned by the if-clause is missing. The error, actually an omission, can be fixed quite easily: “If you happen to be in the area, remember that we will be at Meehan’s Ale House. So stop on by.”

Other instances of this kind of error:
“If you are new to my blog, I post a poll every month….”
should read,
“If you are new to my blog, I have to catch you up: I post a poll every month.”

“If you have not already seen the new Tim Burton movie, it really is something!”
should read,
“If you have not already seen the new Tim Burton movie, let me tell you: it is really something.”
However, “if” does not strike me as the most precise word choice here. I would suggest,
“Assuming that you have not already seen….”

“If you have ever seen xyz movie, that’s what our vacation was like.”
should read,
“If you have ever seen xyz movie, you can imagine our vacation…”

“If you’re interested in xyz product, half of the payment is due by April 30th.”
I doubt that the price is conditional on your interest. Despite my personal lack of interest, for the rest of the people who have decided or will decide to purchase it, half of the payment is probably still due by April 30.
Thus, it should read,
“If you’re interested in xyz product, you need to know that half of the payment is due by April 30th.”

Here again I would choose “in case” or “assuming/supposing that” instead of “if.”
While the above sentences are perfectly understandable to colloquial speakers of the English language, non-native speakers may stumble.

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5 Responses to ““If” with conditional clause”

  • Cecily

    I’m intrigued by the “corrected” sentence that includes the phrase:
    “I have to catch you up”

    Surely I can only “catch you up” in the sense of me following you in some sense and then catching up?

    If not actually incorrect, it sounds very awkward and unfamiliar to English ears.

    As for whether the examples of using “if” when it’s not conditional are actually an “error” or merely a common, idiomatic abbreviation, I think in most cases, it is the latter.

  • Don

    The comedian Demetri Martin had a funny bit on “conditional names.” He said something along the lines of hating it when somebody says, “Now if you run into any trouble, my name is Joan.”

  • Precise Edit

    Well done, Yvonne.

    We address this problem regularly. This is the “if-then” conditional problem. (If the condition XYZ is true, then ABC.) The “if” statement must establish the condition for the “then” statement. If this is not true in a sentence, then the sentence has a logic problem.

    Incorrect: If you’re not sure why this is a problem, we have an article that explains it.
    [We have an article whether or not you’re unsure. Your understanding of the problem does not affect the existence of our article.]
    Correct: If you’re not sure why this is a problem, read our article about it.

    Another form of this problem is the conditional non sequitur.
    Incorrect: If you like hot dogs, you’ll love our tofu hot dogs!
    [This is not logical. A person who likes hot dogs may or may not love the tofu hot dogs. Loving tofu hot dogs is not the logical result of liking hot dogs.]
    Correct: If you love hot dogs, you might love our tofu hot dogs.
    [This is true. The person MAY love the tofu hot dogs. It is possible (however improbable).]

    Incorrect: If eating one piece of chocolate is good for you, then eating ten pieces is better.
    [This is also a non sequitur because eating ten pieces may or may not be better for you. The second part of the expression is not the logical conclusion of the first part. Maybe eating two pieces is better than eating one, but eating ten pieces makes you sick.]
    Correct: If eating one piece of chocolate is good for you, then, perhaps, eating ten pieces is better.

    Cecily: Perhaps you are thinking of the phrase “catch up with you,” which is different than “catch you up.” The first phrase refers to following someone in some manner (me following you) and then doing something to be equal. If I catch up with you, then I am the one behind. I must do something to be your equal in that regard. The phase “catch you up” is the opposite. You are the one behind (you following me), and I perform some action to help you be equal. For example, if I and others have some knowledge that you lack, then I can catch you up by informing you of that knowledge so that your knowledge equals ours.

  • Cecily

    @Precise Edit: I don’t know what part of the English-speaking world you or Yvonne Canchola are in, but in British English “I’ll catch you up” is the same as “I’ll catch up with you”, e.g. if you head for the restaurant first and I intend to get there around the same time as you. In the context of this post, a Brit would probably say “I’ll bring you up to speed”.

    It never ceases to amaze me how many new differences there are in the way we use the language we share.

  • Precise Edit

    Ah-the British/U.S. issue. In any case, you now have some insight into how the US-English phrases are used and how they differ.

    Assuming that Yvonne is also using U.S. usage, and based on the explanation of how the phrase in question is used in the U.S., you’ll see that her example makes sense.

    (Perhaps I need to put a”U.S. English” disclaimer by any discussion of usage.)

    Thanks for providing the explanation of the British usage.

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