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.