Pedantic about biscuit conditionals

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Today's xkcd:

Mouseover title: "'If you're done being pedantic, we should get dinner.' 'You did it again!' 'No, I didn't.'"

These are known in the trade as "relevance conditionals" (or, more poetically, as "biscuit conditionals"), and there have been a few previous LLOG posts about them:

"If you think about it", 6/1/2009
"'If you're just joining me, …'", 10/15/2015




  1. Gregory said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 9:22 am

    I'll be in your city tomorrow – statement of fact
    if you want to hang out – protasis
    – apodosis not expressed, but understood to be along the lines of
    'I would be happy to see you.'

  2. Jonathan Badger said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 10:27 am

    How about phrases where conditionals can be implied? Like when news reporters conclude their reports with "In Washington, I'm Joe Smith". Which could imply that in other cities he might be Bill Jones.

  3. DWalker said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 11:11 am

    As we have observed before, this happens all the time: "If you want to call me, my number is xxx-xxxx.".

    Which means "In case you want to call me, here's my number".

    That "In Washington, I'm Joe Smith" one is funny! I never noticed that before.

  4. Guy said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 11:18 am


    I don't think that's right. The function of the conditional is to limit the scope of potential situations where the statement applies. Often the reason for this will be to preserve truth, but sometimes it has other purposes, like to preserve relevance (information about where you'll be is only relevant if they want to hang out.

    Even if we do analyze it as omitted material, I think something like "You should know I'll be in your city tomorrow, if you want to hang out" better captures the actual meaning.

  5. Rodger C said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 11:49 am

    "In Washington, I'm Joe Smith"

    There was once a New Yorker cartoon exploiting this.

  6. Faldone said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 12:00 pm

    It's a simple matter of symbolic logic. If A then B does not imply anything about the consequence if not A.

    [(myl) But material implication does insist that

    (A ⊃ B) ⊃ (~B ⊃ ~A)

    So "If you're hungry, there are biscuits on the sideboard" must mean that if someone else has eaten the biscuits, then you're not hungry…]

  7. Charles Antaki said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 5:21 pm

    A good illustration why symbolic logic isn't much use as an account of language. If someone tells you that if you buy a lottery ticket you'll stand a chance of winning millions, you can reasonably infer that if you don't, you won't. (Though you knew that anyway).

  8. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 5:36 pm

    In logic and mathematics you can specify when appropriate the narrower/stronger "if but only if" ("iff" disambiguates better from "if" in writing than in speech . . .). In ordinary conversational English, "if" is probably equivalent to "iff" in some uses in some contexts, but not in other uses in other contexts.

  9. John Walden said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 5:45 pm

    If you say so.

  10. Guy said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 5:51 pm

    @ J W Brewer

    I think the reverse direction is never more than an implicature. Can you give an example where it isn't cancellable, or some other kind of evidence?

  11. Guy said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 5:55 pm

    But I agree that Faldone's argument doesn't work. The classical logic conditional is not necessarily the meaning of English conditionals. (For example, the meaning of "and" isn't the same as classical logical conjunction: that would make utterances like "come here and I'll show you" uninterpretable).

  12. GeorgeW said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 8:11 pm

    Often said in restaurants by a waitperson: "If you need anything, my name is X."

  13. Milan said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 9:51 pm

    @ Guy:

    I'm not sure that, but it seems to me that some examples with focal stress (indicated with ALL CAPS) might not be cancellable, at least not very felicitously:

    (1) If she drinks only a few beers, there is no problem. Not to say there is one if she drinks many.
    (2) If she drinks only a FEW beers, there is NO problem. ?Not to say there is one is she drinks many.

  14. Mark P said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 11:24 pm


    While it's true that if you buy a lottery ticket you stand a chance of winning millions, you still have only a marginally better chance than if you don't buy a lottery ticket, at least for the big-jackpot lotteries.

  15. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 11:33 pm

    Just poking around some genre fiction on google books I found some very natural-sounding examples like "If they find us, they'll kill us," where the "iff" reading is hard to resist simply because it's generally hard to kill someone you can't locate. Another was something like "If they can't find us tonight, they'll be patrolling the highway tomorrow," where the context made clear that the patrolling would not make sense if the "they" had already been found by then. I certainly agree that "if you need anything, my name is X" doesn't fit this pattern.

  16. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 12:12 am

    Sorry, emend last comment in pertinent part to "if the 'us' had already been found."

  17. Viseguy said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 1:26 am

    There's a latent biscuit, isn't there, in the Groucho Marx quip: "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read." (If I called it a dog biscuit, would you hold it against me?)

  18. Ralph Hickok said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 8:01 am

    In the Grouchian vein: Why would you want a dog biscuit held against you?

  19. Brett said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 10:17 am

    When I went to Disneyland, more than a quarter of a century ago, I went on the jungle boat ride several times, and each guide had a different shtick. One of them ended with, "If you enjoyed the ride, my name is Morice,* M-O-R-I-C-E. If you didn't enjoy the ride, my name is Steve, and you can spell that however you want."

  20. Viseguy said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 10:51 am

    @Ralph Hickok:
    Because whatever it is, I'm against it.

  21. James said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 11:03 am

    J. W. Brewer, in those examples it sure looks like the reason the attempted cancelation of the implicature sounds very odd is that the proposition you'd have to assert to cancel it is extremely implausible (know to be false, in fact). It's similar to the disjunctions:

    He'll drive to Seattle or take a plane.
    Everyone in the crew either died or escaped utterly unscathed.

    These are bad tests for distinguishing inclusive from exclusive 'or', because the case that distinguishes the two kinds of 'or' is absurd in each example. That is: we cannot argue that these are exclusive 'or' on the grounds that nobody who accepts the first sentence thinks the subject might drive to Seattle *and* take a plane, because irrespective of the asserted content nobody expects anyone to both drive and take a plane to Seattle. Similarly, we can't conclude from your examples that "If they find us they'll kill us" has the claim that they will not kill us if they don't find us, since nobody would have thought they might kill us without finding us irrespective of the assertion of the conditional.

    Hm, I feel that I explained that in a needlessly complicated way. I hope I didn't manage to obscure the basic point. (I agree with Guy.)

  22. BZ said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 11:04 am

    "In Washington, I'm Joe Smith" is just a statement of two facts. I am in Washington, and I am Joe Smith. The Washington part is stressed and comes first because it is more relevant to the report. Sure, it can be misinterpreted on purpose, but there is no ambiguity *or* grammatical implication of a condition.

    That said, I think I've heard "from Washington" a lot more frequently. It's the beginning of a report (when the reporter was not introduced by someone else) that "I'm Joe Smith in Washington" (which can be purposely misinterpreted too) usually occurs.

    It's just a construction that isn't used much outside of reporting, because you don't usually state your name and current location in a single sentence.

  23. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 8:13 pm

    James: I think the gap between us is that I'm not sure you're analyzing the meaning of English sentences as they would occur in ordinary discourse. It feels like you're doing something more akin to conducting a seminar in formal logic that happens to be taught in English, analyzing formal-logic propositions that would be better expressed in some sort of specialized notation rather than imperfectly paraphrased into English prose. But this may be an idiosyncratic reaction on my part based on my idiosyncratic reflections over the course of the many decades since my undergraduate studies of why the content of classes in formal semantics and analytical-style philosophy of language often seemed unhelpful BS when it came to understanding natural language on its own terms, but a very different sort of unhelpful BS than the classes in Chomskyan syntax. Or it may be my own fault for getting stuck the various times I've tried to plow through McCawley's Everything that Linguists have Always Wanted to Know about Logic . . . But Were Ashamed to Ask.

  24. Anthony said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 7:53 am

    In this run-up to tax season, I received a letter with this emblazoned in large type on the envelope:


    So what would the envelope have contained if I didn't have an IRA with the firm (with which I do no other business)?

  25. Rodger C said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 10:21 am

    @Anthony: It'd contain irrelevant tax information.

  26. Bev Rowe said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 2:16 pm

    The case I notice most often is statements like "If I don't see you again, have a good Christmas". The implication that you won't have a good Christmas if I do see you always strikes me as rather threatening.

  27. Johan said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 6:55 pm

    @Bev Rowe

    I have always taken the Christmas statement as implying that “if I do see you again, before Christmas, I'll wish you a merry Christmas then. [And in that case it'd be too eager to give my wishes yet.]”

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