May 30, 2007

Omit needless

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 website on "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 for lose, they're/their/there, and then for than) -- plus two peevish extras: hit and miss for hit or miss, and this one, appended to the then/than entry:

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 Ted.
Yes: If you can't get Windows to boot, you'll need to call Ted.

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 can 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 sometimes it misses.   In fact, two recent dictionaries distinguish two different idioms:


hit-and-miss ... Sometimes succeeding and sometimes not.

hit-or-miss ... Marked by lack of care, accuracy, or organization; random.


hit-and-miss 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 anything.

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, Will Strunk.

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, and Risky (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 time."

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 Guide (1993:234) says is:

Then 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 Disagreeable English (2006:189) is as forthright as Davidson in labeling conditional then as an error, though he softens the punch:


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 aesthetic grounds. 

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 marks the 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 use conditional then.  That would be silly advice, just as silly as requiring that the complementizer that should ALWAYS be used (rather than omitted) in sentences like I know that I can't fly (vs. I know I can't fly).  The point is to have alternatives, which can do different things on different occasions.

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, p. 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 ...

Artful indeed.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at May 30, 2007 02:00 AM