“If you’re just joining me, …”

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On Facebook, Mike Pope asks:

On “Fresh Air,” Terri Gross says:

“If you’re just joining me, my guest today is …”.

What she DOESN’T mean is:

“… but if you’re NOT just joining me, my guest is …”

Linguists: who can help us understand how “if” here is not a simplistic conditional? Any links welcome. Thx.

Understanding is hard, but naming is easier: Ms. Gross is using an if-clause to express a certain sort of “felicity condition“. For us to (felicitously) inform someone of something, it should not be the case that they already know it. As a sort of protection against the chance that this condition is not met, people use all sorts of felicitousness-hedges like “In case you missed it” (common enough to be abbreviated ICYMI), “In case you didn’t know”, “If you didn’t know”, “As you probably already know”, “In case you’ve forgotten”, and so on. “If you’re just joining us/me” is an informativeness-hedge that’s especially appropriate for broadcast conversations, since people tune in and out at irregular times.

One way to make sense of such conditionals is to imagine a latent performative verb: “If you’re just joining us, I hereby inform you that my guest today is …” And now  the implicit clause “… but if you’re NOT just joining us” makes sense, with the continuation “… you already know that”.

Examples of this type are one type of “relevance conditional”, and we discussed them (with a cartoon!) in “If you think about it“, 6/1/2009. Relevance conditionals are also known as “biscuit conditionals” in the literature, following an example from J.L. Austin’s 1970 paper “Ifs and cans”,

There are biscuits in the sideboard if you want some.

where the felicity condition in question has to do with your level of interest rather than with your state of knowledge.

An implication of this style of analysis — the general outlines of which go back to Austin’s 1955 William James Lectures How to do things with words — is that (the appropriate translations of) such conditions should be found in all languages and cultures. Whether that’s true I don’t know.

 

 

 



40 Comments

  1. bubenhaft said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 3:07 pm

    When a waiter/waitress delivers the meal and says, “My name is X, if you need anything else”, I sometimes reply, “And what is your name if I don’t need anything else?”

  2. Mark Meckes said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 3:38 pm

    “Understanding is hard, but naming is easier.” This has been a recurring theme in a course I’m teaching right now. Thanks for the pithy expression of it — I’ll be using it in lecture.

  3. Aaron said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 4:11 pm

    This is also why we say “I’m sorry if I offended you” even when we’re pretty sure we did offend the person. It drives me mad when you say that and the person gets angry at the “if” phrasing.

  4. James said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 4:26 pm

    I think these are also related to the following similarly odd conditional:

    “If you believe the dispatcher, the cable guy will be here between noon and 4PM.”

    Of course, when the cable guy arrives does not depend on whether you believe the dispatcher. We could instead say (and often do):

    “If the dispatcher is to be believed…”

    But we also say it the first way. It’s hard to see exactly what the compositional semantics could be here.

  5. Eric P Smith said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 4:27 pm

    Aaron’s “I’m sorry if I offended you” lends itself particularly clearly to the latent performative verb interpretation: “If I offended you, I hereby apologise.”

  6. Jacob said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 4:35 pm

    When Terry says, “You’re listening to Fresh Air,” how does she know?

  7. Jeffrey L. Whitledge said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 4:45 pm

    The problem with the “I’m sorry if I offended you” construction is that it implies that the significant factor is the listener’s offended reaction rather than the speaker’s offensive action. “What I said was wrong, only if you are offended. Otherwise, it was good.” This is different from the “What I said was clearly wrong,” that the listener is hoping for. The recognition of error is what the offended party wants, and that is exactly what they are not getting. So getting angry at the “if” phrasing should not be unexpected.

  8. Chris Kern said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 4:45 pm

    So is this a different construction from “if” statements like this:

    If you come back tomorrow, Mr. Smith will be here [actually whether or not he’s here does not depend on whether you come]
    If you turn left here, it will be across from the bus stop [the building is across from the bus stop no matter what you do]

    You can make these true conditionals by changing the second phrase, e.g. “If you come back tomorrow, you can meet with Mr. Smith then”.

  9. david donnell said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 5:08 pm

    As a child, whenever I would ask my late dad (b. 1912, rural MO) “What day is today?,” his stock reply was always, e.g., “Tuesday, if it doesn’t rain.” My siblings and I learned soon enough to avoid the obvious follow-up question; no one wants to play straight man for a tired gag!

  10. Joe said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 6:14 pm

    david donnell:

    As a child, whenever I would ask my late dad (b. 1912, rural MO) “What day is today?,” his stock reply was always, e.g., “Tuesday, if it doesn’t rain.”

    Did he mean something along the lines of: “In my book, it doesn’t count as a day if it rains.”?

  11. Gregory Kusnick said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 6:17 pm

    Jacob: Perhaps Gross is looking at her producer when she says it.

  12. Jonathan D said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 6:22 pm

    I can see that “if I offended you” can be hedging in some way similar to “if you’re just joining us”, but I don’t see how that makes it any less likely to make people angry in some contexts. If you know someone was offended, then any hedging isn’t for their benefit.

  13. Jason said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 7:06 pm

    It’s the Gricean selective relevance if:


    for(listener in listeners):
    &nbsp&nbspif justjoining(listener):
    &nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsplistener.sendmessage(.statement_for_your_benefit, “My guest today is…”)
    &nbsp&nbspelse:
    &nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsplistener.sendmessage(.disregard_understand_for_anothers_benefit)

  14. Jason said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 7:07 pm

    Well, that works in preview, but not while posting. Never mind.

  15. Sybil said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 7:08 pm

    “If you’re just joining us” isn’t hedging: it’s an indication that what follows is directed at those (and only those) who are just joining us.

    On the other hand, “if I offended you” is not specifying the target of the message: the speaker is only speaking to one person. Not the same thing at all, it seems to me.

    (And if you know that you offended someone, why not just say “I’m sorry that I offended you.”?)

  16. Sybil said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 7:13 pm

    @Jason: yes, just so! Too bad it didn’t display the way you intended.

  17. David P said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 8:06 pm

    One that always puzzled me: Person X, running into his friend John Smith unexpectedly: “Well! If it isn’t John Smith!”
    (To which a John Smith I used to know would reply: “And what if it is?”)

  18. Brett said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 8:20 pm

    On the old jungle boat ride at Disneyland, each boat guide had his or her own variations on the narration shtick. One of the gags I remember from one of the guides came as the ride was coming to its conclusion: “If you enjoyed the ride, my name is Marcel, M-A-R-C-E-L. If you didn’t enjoy the ride, my name is Steve, and you can spell that any way you like.”

  19. Mark S said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 8:24 pm

    The late John Ebdon, British radio presenter, used to end every show with “If you have been, thanks for listening.” I always found it rather charming.
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/4363795.stm

  20. Joshua said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 8:28 pm

    How should we interpret the conditionals in “The Siamese Cat Song” from Lady and the Tramp?

    “We are Siamese if you please.
    We are Siamese if you don’t please.”
    — Peggy Lee

  21. Ray said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 9:07 pm

    I wonder if there’s another explanation. I’m thinking about how some people (I’m thinking of mark twain and slave narratives) used to use “iffen” (which stood for iffin’ or iffing, as a state of if). in this sense, if is a kind of ongoing, continuous conditional that the speaker allows the listener to have, while providing the listener with a steady fact in any case. (replace ‘if’ with ‘iffen’ in all the examples above to see how this could work…)

  22. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 11:11 pm

    David P: That might be “I’ll be damned if it isn’t John Smith!”

    Ray: Another theory about “iffen” is that it’s for “if an”, as in Tom Jones: “If an she be a Rebel” (courtesy of the OED).

  23. Jeff W said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 11:51 pm

    The problem with the “I’m sorry if I offended you” construction is that it implies that the significant factor is the listener’s offended reaction rather than the speaker’s offensive action. “What I said was wrong, only if you are offended. Otherwise, it was good.”

    I’ve never understood that interpretation—there is no “only if” condition in that statement. To me the phrase does work somewhat like Terry Gross’s “If you’re joining us…”: if you’ve taken offense, I express my regret; if you haven’t, an apology might not be at issue (or I might still regret my action). What if the listener says, “Huh? What? It didn’t even occur to me to be offended”?

    I agree that if you know you’ve offended someone, the better thing to say is “I’m sorry that I offended you.”

  24. Steve Straight said,

    October 16, 2015 @ 8:33 am

    @James:

    Regarding the compositional semantics of “If you believe the dispatcher, the cable guy will be here between noon and 4PM.”, how about the following?

    “If you believe the dispatcher, [then you believe] the cable guy will be here between noon and 4PM.”

  25. DWalker said,

    October 16, 2015 @ 9:42 am

    “When a waiter/waitress delivers the meal and says, “My name is X, if you need anything else”, I sometimes reply, “And what is your name if I don’t need anything else?””

    I also like the phrase “If you want to call me, my phone number is xxxxxxx”.

    On the US TV show “Hollywood Game Night”, Jane Lynch ends by saying “If you had half as much fun as I did, then I had twice as much fun as you!”. Which sounds confusing but it’s true.

  26. DWalker said,

    October 16, 2015 @ 9:47 am

    I also think that “If you’re just joining us, my guest today is” or, alternatively, “If you’re just joining us, I hereby inform you that my guest today is …but if you’re NOT just joining us …” could be simplified completely!

    Remove the entire “If” clause. The announcer can simply say, every 15 minutes or so, “My guest today is…”

  27. David Everitt said,

    October 16, 2015 @ 10:24 am

    “Remove the entire “If” clause. The announcer can simply say, every 15 minutes or so, “My guest today is…””

    But that omits the welcome she is extending to late joiners.

  28. Robert Coren said,

    October 16, 2015 @ 10:25 am

    The real meaning behind “If you’re just joining us, our guest is…” is “In case you’re just joining us, I’m informing your that our guest is…”. I’m not sure sure why/how/when that “in case” became “if”.

    @Jacob: Presumably anyone who hears her say “You’re listening to…” is at least partly listening to it.

  29. Jeffrey L. Whitledge said,

    October 16, 2015 @ 10:32 am

    Regardless of the surface meaning of the phrase “If you’re just joining us…”, I suspect the intent of the phrase is to explain to long-term listeners why they keep repeating the same information every few minutes. Thus, ironically, that part of the sentence is really for the people who have been listening for a while. Those who really are just joining would have accepted the information just fine without the preamble.

    [(myl) Exactly. As I explained, such conditionals are precisely intended to excuse the case where the informativeness condition is violated, so that here the phrase is directed at the people who have been listening all along.]

  30. dfphil said,

    October 16, 2015 @ 2:24 pm

    A rather folksy physicist whom I’ve heard speak many times is fond of announcing prior to going through his introduction at colloquia, “Allow me to remind myself in your presence of some material” as a twist on the “in case you missed [this sub-field of science].”

  31. Karl Weber said,

    October 16, 2015 @ 3:55 pm

    On radio broadcasts of baseball games, the announcers will sometimes describe a play using the scorecard codes and introduce the description with an “if” clause: “If you’re scoring at home, that play went 4 to 6 to 3.” Which leads to the occasional wisecrack, “If you’re scoring at home, or even if you’re listening to the game alone . . . ”

    And at least once during a long, boring, inconsequential spring training game, I heard a Mets announcer say, “If you’re scoring at home–why?”

  32. Victor Mair said,

    October 16, 2015 @ 5:21 pm

    @Jacob

    “When Terry says, ‘You’re listening to Fresh Air,’ how does she know?”

    Because you’re hearing what she says.

    @Gregory Kusnick

    “Jacob: Perhaps Gross is looking at her producer when she says it.”

    I’ve been on “Fresh Air”, and my recollection is that Terry was looking into the space beyond the microphone when she said that.

    @Robert Conran

    “I’m not sure sure why/how/when that ‘in case’ became ‘if’.”

    Your explanation is similar to how I teach my students to deal with this sort of thing in Classical Chinese, where a lot of things get left out or are assumed: “If (it is the case that) you’re just joining me, my guest is… (If it is not the case that you’re just joining me, ignore what I’m telling you about who my guest is today, because it’s only intended for those who are just joining me.)

  33. Carol said,

    October 16, 2015 @ 5:24 pm

    The one I hear all the time is, “If I don’t see you again, have a happy holiday.” I like to respond in a hyperformal tone, “In case I don’t see you again, let me take the opportunity to wish you a happy holiday now.” When I’m feeling really snarky, I point out, “In my religious and cultural community, the holiday we celebrate this time of year is Memorial Day.”

  34. etv13 said,

    October 16, 2015 @ 6:49 pm

    @Brett: I was there last month, and the guides are still doing that joke. (Also “the eighth wonder of the world: the backside of water!” and “any way you slice it, you still come out ahead.”)

  35. Xtifr said,

    October 17, 2015 @ 3:45 pm

    “If you’re just joining us [then I should inform you that] our guest is….”

    The other interpretations that people have offered remind me of the classical example of The Mathematician’s Answer:

    “Would you like the chicken or the fish?”

    “Yes.”

    Which is the sort of joke that I firmly put in the funny-once category.

  36. Guy said,

    October 17, 2015 @ 8:32 pm

    Isn’t this pretty straightforward? The function of a conditional is to limit the speech-act that would be performed absent the conditional to the situation expressed by the condition. Often the reasons for this limitation is to ensure truth conditions are met, but in many cases, including this one, it’s to make sure other conditions are met. Here, to limit the advisory to people who wouldn’t have already obtained it earlier in the discourse. The conditional aids all listeners by ensuring that they understand the reason for the utterance is to benefit newcomers, so that those who already heard the announcement won’t waste time trying to figure out some other reason for the repetition (is this new information? Did I misinterpret the earlier announcement? Does the speaker think I’m not paying attention?).

    Perhaps the only thing that needs explanation is why this doesn’t carry the usual implicature that the consequent may not be true in other cases. But that’s also easily explained: pragmatic so tell us that there must be some reason for the conditional, in many contexts that reason will be to satisfy truth conditions, which is where the implicature comes from. But in this case it is apparent that the condition is performing another function, so there is no need to assume the implicature to explain the presence of the conditional. The absence of the implicature is also a consequence of the fact that it’s extremely unlikely – in some cases, logically impossible – that the guest would depend on whether the addressees are just joining.

  37. Faldone said,

    October 18, 2015 @ 7:24 am

    To assume that if you are not just joining the guest would be someone other than the person identified in the “If you’re just joining us …” statement is to commit the logical fallacy Denying the Antecedent.

  38. Chas Belov said,

    October 18, 2015 @ 4:20 pm

    As for “If you think about it”, 6/1/2009, the example “If I may be honest, you are not looking good.” does imply, “If I may not be honest, you look great.” so it’s different from the others we’ve been discussing. And as for “I’m sorry if you were offended,” even “I’m sorry I offended you” is still annoying because it implies the wrong was causing offense, not that the wrong was making the original speech action.

  39. anne said,

    October 20, 2015 @ 11:37 am

    comedian Demetri Martin:
    “I went into a clothes store and a lady came up to me and said ‘If you need anything, I’m Jill.’ I’ve never met anyone with a conditional identity before.”

  40. Kenny Easwaran said,

    October 24, 2015 @ 10:10 am

    It seems to me that the problem with “I’m sorry if I offended you” is the same as the problem with “I’m sorry that I offended you” – it sounds like you’re sorry that the person reacted badly to your (in your opinion) perfectly acceptable action. What they actually want to hear is that you’re sorry that you did an unacceptable thing, and that their reaction was at most an educational opportunity for you, rather than hearing that their reaction was the only bad thing that happened.

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