May 15, 2006

Strange ifs of the third kind

In a recent New Yorker cartoon by Alex Gregory [April 17, 2006, page 74], a hospital patient, lying strapped down on the operating table and ready to be anaesthetized for an operation, looks up earnestly at the masked surgeon and says:

"You know, doctor, right now I'd really prefer if your sense of humor were a tad less self-deprecating."

The joke about what patients would think of surgeons' traditional operating-room humor is good, and made me smile; but the use of if in the caption really caught my attention. It's not the conditional if, you see — the one that you get in You can get it if you really want. And it's not the interrogative subordinator — the one that has exactly the same function as whether, as in I don't know if I'm coming or going. It's a very interesting if indeed. A third kind of if that almost no grammarians have written about. Let me explain.

The subordinator if that introduces interrogative content clauses is easy to spot: you just replace by whether and make sure the result is grammatical and has the same meaning. Prefer doesn't take interrogative content clauses: *I'd prefer whether your sense of humor were a tad less self-deprecating is obviously completely ungrammatical. So we can forget that. The cartoon does not have the interrogative subordinator if. What I have to do now is to convince you that we can tell the conditional if from the strange new third kind of if I am claiming English has. And I think I can do that.

My claim is that the patient in the cartoon is using if as a subordinator to introduce a declarative irrealis mood content clause, and that this is one of the grammatical possibilities with the matrix verb prefer.

Here's how to tell that it's not the conditional. Conditional if phrases are adjuncts, and you can always put an adjunct at the front of the clause it belongs to if you want. So we have pairs like this:

(1) a. You can get it if you really want.
b. If you really want, you can get it.
(2) a. I would die of embarrassment if that happened to me.
b. If that happened to me I would die of embarrassment.

In each case, because the (a) example is grammatical, so is the (b) example. Now look at what happens with the cartoon example (which I shorten by trimming the irrelevant stuff at the beginning):

(3) a. I'd prefer if your sense of humor were a tad less self-deprecating.
b. *If your sense of humor were a tad less self-deprecating, I'd prefer.

The version with the if clause at the front is ungrammatical! The situation is exactly comparable to this one:

(4) a. I'd prefer for your sense of humor to be a tad less self-deprecating.
b. *For your sense of humor to be a tad less self-deprecating, I'd prefer.

What's going on here is that you can always front an adjunct, but in general, it is much less likely that you will be able to front a complement clause. The sentence (3a) is comparable to the sentence in (4a) in every way, in fact: they mean just about the same, and I'm saying they have just about the same structure.

One difference between clauses introduced by if and clauses introduced by for is that for introduces an infinitival clause (it has the verb in the plain form and a to at the beginning of the verb phrase), but if introduces a finite clause in which the verb is in the special irrealis form if the verb has one.

The inflectional system of English is much less complex than it was a thousand years ago, and today there is only one verb that has an irrealis form that is (in spelling and pronunciation) different from its preterite. That verb is be. And even for be, there are only two contexts in which you can tell the irrealis from the preterite: the first person singular (if I were you) and the third person singular (if he were really smart). In all other person/number combinations, were is the preterite form too, but in these two the preterite would be was, so we can see whether the irrealis is being used. And by a stroke of good luck, that was the verb the cartoonist chose as the main verb of the complement clause! If it hadn't been — say, if he had chosen to have the patient say, "I'd really prefer if you stopped making jokes" — I wouldn't have been able to show you that it really is a special irrealis mood form in there, so there are special syntactic properties of this construction.

One other thing. Like other clauses, these if-introduced clauses are often found in what we call extraposition, with a meaningless it occupying the subject or object slot instead of the clause occupying it: we get It would be silly if you gave up now, and I'd appreciate it if you'd take your hand off my leg. But in these cases, since sentences like It would be silly and I'd appreciate it are grammatical in their own right (with a meaningful it that refers to something), it is not so easy to tell that you are looking at content clauses. There is a separate reading of these sentences under which the it is meaningful and the if introduces a conditional adjunct. That is, the sentences are ambiguous. What is so nice about the cartoon example quoted above is that it doesn't have an it object. And conveniently for my purposes, *I'd prefer is ungrammatical on its own. That tells us conclusively that we have a declarative irrealis content clause in our cartoon caption example. Q.E.D.

To summarize, before I dismiss the class: there are at least three items spelled if. Two of those three are described in every grammar book, but the third has virtually never been described anywhere. This latter one, this strange if of the third kind, introduces declarative content clauses in the irrealis mood. And let me make it very clear: there will be a test on this material, and it will be on the final.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 15, 2006 11:43 PM