March 15, 2008

Doing things with conditionals

If X then Y conditionals are remarkably versatile.  Just sticking to the ones with present-tense antecedents and future consequents, the neutral use, out of context, is simply to say that X has Y as a consequence, and so to express a prediction that X will lead to Y:
If my dog sees a stranger, it will bark.
If you put sodium in water, it will react violently.
In general, when the antecedent has a second-person subject, the conditional has an alternative imperative in conjunctive form:
Put sodium in water, and it will react violently.

But making a prediction can be used to convey all sorts of other meanings indirectly.  For example, it can serve as a suggestion, a piece of advice --
If you add a pinch of oregano to that, it will taste better.  [suggestion to add water]
or as a promise --
If you vote for me, I'll have the potholes on your street fixed.  [promise to fix the potholes]
or an offer --
If you talk to me nicely, I'll help you with your homework.  [offer to help with the homework]
or as a warning --
If you add water to that, it will explode.  [warning not to add water]
or a threat --
If you don't vote for me, I'll have your house burned down.  [threat to have the house burned down]

All of these have conjunctive imperative alternatives.  The last two types, however, express consequences that the hearer can be expected to view negatively, and these have alternative imperatives in DISJUNCTIVE form:
Don't add water to that, or it will explode.
Vote for me, or I'll have your house burned down.
Notice how sensitive these things are to the attitudes of the speaker and hearer: a lot depends on whether the participants view the consequence neutrally, positively, or negatively.  Now comes today's Doonesbury, with a play on these attitudes.

Zeke views his withholding of sex as a negative thing, so "Give me the money or I'll withhold sex" (an alternative to "If you don't give me money, I'll withhold sex") is intended as a threat.  But J. J. clearly thinks that his withholding of sex would be a good thing and can't accept the threat interpretation of the disjunctive imperative; instead, she views "Give me the money or I'll withhold sex" as equivalent to "If you don't give me the money, I'll withhold sex", and in her eyes that's an offer, not a threat.  Certainly not a good step in a blackmail scheme.

There's a lot more that could be said about these conditionals and their coordinate-imperative alternatives, but it's wonderful how much of the system is packaged into the last two panels of the strip.

And now for some Monty Python's Flying Circus, also wrestling with how to issue threats.  It comes up in a sketch about the notorious Piranha brothers, Doug and Dinsdale (p. 186 in the first volume of All the Words):

Presenter  When the Piranhas left school they were called up but were found by an Army Board to be mentally unstable even for National Service.  Denied the opportunity to use their talents in the service of the country, they began to operate what they called 'The Operation'.  They would select a victim and then threaten to beat him if he paid them the so-called protection money.  Four months later they started another operation which they called 'The Other Operation',  In this racket they selected another victim and threatened not to beat him up if he didn't pay them.  One month later they hit upon 'The Other Other Operation'.  In this the victim was threatened that if he didn't pay them they would beat him up.  This for the Piranha brothers was the turning point.

To summarize: in order to extort money from victims, the Piranhas attempted to issue threats.  Paring the intended threats down to if ... then form, we get, for the three Operations:
(O1) If you pay us, we will beat you up.
(O2) If you don't pay us, we won't beat you up.
(O3) If you don't pay us, we will beat you up.
(O1) doesn't work because the negative consequence (being beaten up) can be averted by not paying the Piranhas; that is, the brothers extort no money.  Ditto for (O2).  Finally, success with (O3), which manages to extort by threat: either the victim pays, or he gets beaten up.  The remaining option, not used by Doug and Dinsdale, frames things as a promise, but a definitely menacing promise, and it would have worked:
(O4) If you pay us, we won't beat you up.

(Hat tip to Barbara Partee.)

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 15, 2008 02:19 PM