My adventures in the Practical Survival Skills area of the advice
literature on English -- material that gives you some small number of
crucial mistakes to avoid in business or other professional writing, or
just in writing in general -- have taken me to some curious
places. Occasionally I discover "mistakes" I hadn't noticed
before. For instance, in a
"10 Grammar Mistakes That Make You Look Stupid" (version
of 5/23/05), there are the ten mistakes -- almost all of them common
spelling errors that a spellchecker won't find (like loose
, and then
) -- plus two peevish extras: hit and miss
for hit or miss
, and this one, appended
to the then/than
Note: Here's a sub-peeve. When a
sentence construction begins with If,
you don't need a then. Then is implicit, so it's
superfluous and wordy:
No: If you can't get Windows to
boot, then you'll need to call
Yes: If you can't get Windows
to boot, you'll need to call
Omit needless then
(A very big hat tip to Doug Kenter, who pointed me to the "Make You Look Stupid" site.)
First, a few words on hit and miss
"Make You Look Stupid" attacks it on the basis of logic:
At some point, who knows when, it
became common practice to say that something is "hit and miss." Nuh-UH.
It can't be both, right? It either hits or it misses... "Hit OR miss."
Granted, it's a small thing, a Boolean-obsessive sort of thing. But
it's nonetheless vexing because it's so illogical.
(By the way, appeals to "logic" in usage matters are almost always
flags indicating gaps in reasoning, suppressed premises, and the like.)
A user of hit and miss
counter that this version of the idiom makes more sense than the
version with or
: if something
is hit and miss, sometimes it hits AND
misses. In fact, two recent dictionaries distinguish two
... Sometimes succeeding and sometimes not.
hit-or-miss ... Marked by lack of care,
accuracy, or organization; random.
done or occurring at random ...
hit-or-miss ... as likely to be
unsuccessful as successful ...
Whoops! Essentially the same meaning distinction, but with the
meanings assigned in opposite ways. My guess is that we're
looking at a lot of variation between speakers here, with some
preferring one version (in both meanings), some preferring the other
version (in both meanings), some differentiating the meanings one way,
and some differentiating the meanings the other way. As for
Google, the raw webhits are pretty much a dead heat, with the two
versions each a bit over a million hits.
In any case, we're dealing with idioms here, and idioms by definition
aren't entirely "logical", that is, semantically compositional.
Not something you'd want to develop a "burning pet peeve" (in the
blogger's words) over.
I've looked at a sampling of the advice literature for opinions on hit and/or miss
, without finding
A similar search for advice on conditional then
is slightly, but only
slightly, more successful. Nothing in MWDEU
, Garner's MAU
, Bernstein's Careful Writer
, the AHD Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style
Follett, Follett/Wensberg, any of the editions of Fowler (old original
Fowler, Gowers's Fowler, Burchfield's Fowler), Morris & Morris,
etc. Not even in the 1918 advice of Prof. Omit Needless himself,
Evans & Evans, Dictionary of
Contemporary American Usage
, has the mildest of warnings:
When a condition is introduced by if, the conclusion may be
introduced by then, as in if he said it then it must be true.
As a rule, these sentences are more forceful when then is not used.
But Mark Davidson's Right, Wrong,
(2006:309) just says no -- well, almost always no:
if-clauses should not be followed
by then ... If you add
the word then... you'd be
adding a word that contributes nothing to your message. And you
might be contributing momentary confusion, because the word then in that type of sentence could
be interpreted to mean either "as a consequence" or "at that particular
The then in such sentences is
permitted by The Columbia Guide to
Standard American English when the introductory if clause is "very long"...
Actually, what Wilson's Columbia
(1993:234) says is:
is required for the main clause of a complex sentence whose subordinate
clause begins with if only
when the subordinate clause is very long ...
so Wilson doesn't say it's permitted in these cases -- which would
implicate that it's not permitted elsewhere -- but that it's required
only in these cases -- which entails that it's permitted elsewhere.
Finally, Fiske's Dictionary of
(2006:189) is as forthright as Davidson in
labeling conditional then
an error, though he softens the punch:
IF ... THEN
Solecistic for if. ... DELETE then.
In certain mathematical or computer expressions, if...then is the necessary
expression; in prose, the understood then,
when explicitly stated, is often an encumbrance to grace and elegance.
That's my current crop of opinions on conditional then
. "Make You Look Stupid",
Davidson, and Fiske object to it, explicitly or implicitly, as
needless, and Evans & Evans and Fiske express reservations on
Davidson also finds a potential ambiguity in conditional then
, but my experience is that if
you want to object to a usage, you can almost always find a potential
ambiguity to complain about -- because potential ambiguities are
everywhere, in almost every part of almost every sentence.
Turning now to Omit Needless Words (ONW). Part of its popular
appeal comes from the assumption -- a piece of language ideology,
resting on the so-called Conduit Metaphor -- that what language is for,
all that language is for, is to convey messages from one person to
another. Material that doesn't serve this purpose is then just so
much dead weight; it "contributes nothing to your message" (Davidson),
it's "superfluous" ("Make You Look Stupid"), so it should be excised.
Whenever you see an appeal to ONW, you should wonder what people are
doing with those "needless" words. Most of the time, those extra
words are serving some function that conflicts with brevity; they're
doing some work. Conditional then
marks the consequent clause of a conditional sentence in parallel to
the way that if
antecedent clause, so what it does is to clearly indicate sentence and
discourse organization -- and this can be a distinct service to the
reader or hearer.
That's not to say that you should ALWAYS
would be silly advice, just as silly as requiring that the
be used (rather than omitted) in sentences like I know that I can't fly
(vs. I know I can't fly
point is to have alternatives, which can do different things on
I suspect that I'm not a very heavy user of conditional then
. Often I'm happy to do
without. I might even find it inelegant on occasion. But
there are times when it's a good thing. Virginia
Tufte, Artful Sentences
226, gives a particularly "apt use" (her words) of if ... then
conditionals in a
passage from Ralph Cohen's "Do Postmodern Genres Exist?", which begins:
If we wish to understand ..., then we
need names ...
If we wish to study ..., then genre study helps us ...
The parallelism thus established, Cohen continues without conditional then
If we seek to understand ..., genre
theory provides ...
If we wish to analyze ..., genre theory provides ...
zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at May 30, 2007 02:00 AM