February 01, 2004

Concessive if: bleached or pregnant?

Allan Hazlett quotes a NYT story (by Jodi Wilgoren and Glen Justice) on the shake-up in Howard Dean's campaign staff:

But if such a dramatic move was necessary to signal understanding that something has gone awry, losing Mr. Trippi — who may be followed by several top loyal aides — is risky, since he has become a sort of cult hero to the legions of Deaniacs at the core of the movement.

and comments

"So if the move was nescessary, then losing Trippi is risky? That hardly makes sense. What makes sense is something like "even if the move was necessary, it's the case that the resultant loss is risky." This should have been a conjunction, not a conditional. I've never seen use of "if" and "then" much like this before."

(In fact Wilgoren & Justice don't use "then" -- it would have been weird if they had).

This use of if was discussed a few months ago here by Geoff Pullum, under the heading of "bleached conditionals", with reference to the archtypal snowclone "If Eskimos have dozens of words for snow, Germans have as many for bureaucracy." Geoff agreed with Allan in calling this "a special kind of conditional that does not appear to have conditional force at all; it is more like a coordination."

It's certainly true here that if has a particular sense, different from the straightforwardly conditional one that it has in "if the wind blows, the cradle will rock". The OED lists this sense of if as 4.a. "Even if, even though; though; granted that" and cites among others these examples:

1965 New Statesman 16 Apr. 598/3 If Mr Stewart is top of the Tory pops, other ministers are also high up in the charts. 1967 Listener 17 Aug. 205/1 If my father's people were mill-workers.., my mother's people were agricultural workers. 1969 Ibid. 24 Apr. 585/1 If Mozart was a life-long admirer of J. C. Bach, his views on Clementi were disparaging, to put it mildly.

Note by the way that this doesn't mean that the syntax is changed. In these examples (as in the original NYT sentence) if seems just to be introducing a subordinate clause, exactly as in more straightforwardly conditional uses like

If you cannot see the Breaking News window on the previous page, you may need to download a newer version of your web browser.
If 2004 goes bad, it will go really bad.

But it's also less clear that it might seem exactly what the difference in meaning is. The OED introduces its fourth set of senses of if as follows:

4. In pregnant senses: a. Even if, even though; though; granted that.

I was not familiar with pregnant as a linguistic term of art, but the OED has

pregnant construction, in Gram. or Rhet., a construction in which more is implied than the words express.

So Geoff and the OED are at odds. Geoff says that these conditionals are bleached, that is, they've had the conditional tint somehow washed out of them. The OED says that these conditionals are pregnant, that is, they're carrying a little something else besides their normal (conditional) meaning.

If the meaning of if in the sense in question should be seen as the basic conditional sense plus something extra, what would the extra stuff be? I guess the extra would be that both clauses are true (which is what Allan means by saying that he expects a "conjunction", and what Geoff means by saying that"this type of conditional is more like a coordination"), and that the second clause is surprising given the first, or goes beyond the first in some salient dimension. Is the conditional sense still there? Well, if the apodosis is assumed to be true, then the conditional relation is truth-conditionally moot. And perhaps the sense of NOT (A and NOT B) is what somehow gives rise to the concessive (and/or "excessive") meaning: "you might have thought that A should be true and B false, but not so..." I think we need some help from a neo-Gricean semanticist here.

FWIW, note that this concessive (or "excessive") meaning of if is especially common in introducing adjective phrases

It's all perfectly normal — if troublesome to varying degrees.
Virtual colon dissection is promising, if flawed.
It was fair and balanced if perhaps a little old.

or noun phrases with similar force

The final episode started with an explanation for the town mystery (if a problematic one), but if you thought this was designed to be a closing episode, guess again.

and the same thing is also often found with prenominal concessive modifers

Today hashing is a global, if little known, pursuit.
Vegetables and sour cream dip are a good (if common) idea

There is a related "excessive" meaning for A if not B, where the ordering of A and B on a scale is crucial, but the validity of B is not assumed. In fact, the Columbia Journalism Review suggests that this construction is often an underhanded way to insinuate something without stating it (the first two examples below are from CJR). It's also beloved of headline writers, probably for exactly the same reasons.

"...at worst, he bullied his opponents and impugned their integrity, if not their patriotism."
"Off and on for two decades, Dr. Lee's behavior was curious, if not criminal."
Money funds' tires are deflated, if not flat.
Paying property taxes made easier, if not painless.
Tomorrow Never Dies leaves you shaken, if not stirred.
Is local, if not organic, the better consumer choice?

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 1, 2004 12:48 AM