Questions and conditionals

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Decades ago, when I was little, I read this joke in Mad Magazine:

Do your feet smell? Does your nose run? You may be built upside-down.

I giggled for a short time — just a couple of days, I think — at the surprising coincidence of the two verb senses, and the double pun, and then got on with whatever boys in short pants do during those parts of the day that are not taken up with giggling. But I see now that there is something linguistically interesting about the joke: the two questions convey the effect of a conditional. So the content of the joke could be phrased (though for some reason much less amusingly) like this:

If your feet smell and your nose runs then you may be built upside-down.

This similarity of effect between interrogative clauses and conditional clauses has a connection to the historical reason for an identity of form between the words introducing the interrogative subordinate clause in (1) and the conditional clause in (2).

    (1) I don't know if the car will start.
    (2) We won't go if the car won't start.

The two ifs share an etymology, but they have grown apart.

Traditional grammars do not recognize this. They would say we have the same item in (1) and (2): a "subordinating conjunction". But the analysis that Huddleston and I set out in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language dispenses entirely with the term "subordinating conjunction", on the grounds that it is a label for a rag-bag of items that should have been analyzed in two different ways. A small number of the items in question are subordinators: meaningless markers such as that and whether that appear at the beginnings of subordinate clauses. The rest are prepositions that happen to take clauses rather than noun phrases as their complements: words like though and because. These have substantial semantic content, taking clauses and converting them into adjuncts expressing concession, cause, reason, etc.

The word if is unusual in that it is actually two different items, one a subordinator and the other a preposition. The if in (1) is a subordinator, with no more meaning than whether has; but the if in (2) is a preposition which forms an adjunct phrase expressing a precondition for the the truth of the matrix clause. In the contemporary language there are many syntactic differences between them. I recently set it as an exercise for my students to demonstrate these differences. Let me share with you the ten syntactic arguments with which I supported the view that the two items are grammatically distinct.

  1. The Subordinator if can be replaced by whether (which is slightly more formal), but the Preposition can't:

    I don't know if it's true.    [subordinator if]
    I don't know whether it's true.

    Have some cake if you want.    [preposition if]
    *Have some cake whether you want.

  2. The Preposition if can be replaced by other prepositions such as after, but the Subordinator can't:

    I'll jump in if you do.    [preposition if]
    I'll jump in after you do.

    I don't know if I'll jump in.    [subordinator if]
    *I don't know after I'll jump in.

  3. An if-PP is an adjunct, and adjunct PPs can be preposed very readily. Content clauses, on the other hand, are by no means so readily preposed. Sometimes an interrogative content clause can be preposed: we can get Whether this is true I cannot not say; but clauses beginning with interrogative if seem not to prepose (?If this is true I cannot not say doesn't seem to mean I cannot say whether this is true), and certainly the complement of wonder does not seem to prepose at all; so there are fairly clear contrasts like this:

    If I learned how to walk on water, they would probably still ignore me.    [preposition if]
    *If I could learn to walk on water, I wonder.    [subordinator if]

    If you want you can have some cake.    [preposition if]
    *If there is any cake left I don't know.    [subordinator if]

  4. You can add or not to a closed interrogative content clause, but not to a conditional phrase, so only the second of these is grammatical:

    *If I learned how to walk on water or not, they would probably still ignore me.
    I wonder if I could learn to walk on water or not.    [subordinator if]

  5. The irrealis form of be (namely, 1st and 3rd singular were) occurs (at least in formal styles) in the complement of conditional if, but not in interrogative content clauses:

    I would eat worms if I were a bird.    [preposition if]
    Bad: *I wonder if I were a bird in some previous life.    [subordinator if]

    He wouldn't treat you like that if he were in love with you.    [preposition if]
    *I never knew if he were going to come home at night.    [subordinator if]

  6. The Preposition, but not the Subordinator, can be modified by placing the focusing modifier adverb even before it:

    They would probably still ignore me even if I learned how to walk on water.    [preposition if]
    They would probably still ignore me if I learned how to walk on water.
    We need to know if he is on our side or not.    [subordinator if]
    *We need to know even if he is on our side or not.

  7. The focusing modifier adverb only can also occur before Preposition if as a modifier but not before the Subordinator. It may be possible to interpret only as modifying the main clause in the latter case (I wonder only if we can trust him can be read as saying "The only thing I wonder about is whether we can trust him); but we can form a coordination of conditional if with another if that is premodified with only, to get a familiar expression of the logical biconditional, and this clearly fails with the Subordinator, giving a reliable test:

    I will do it if and only if we can get agreement from the committee.    [preposition if]
    *I wonder if and only if we can get agreement from the committee.    [subordinator if]

  8. The focusing modifier only also occurs in an idiomatic combination after the Preposition if, and this too is specific to the Preposition:

    I could get some sleep if only the baby would stop crying.    [preposition if]
    *I wonder if only the baby could somehow be stopped from crying.    [subordinator if]

  9. Conditional if takes reduced clause complements as well as full clause complements, but this is not true of the Subordinator:

    I will open the emergency door if instructed to do so.    [preposition if]
    *I wonder if instructed to do so.    [subordinator if]

  10. There is an idiom if that meaning something like "even if that much is true". It is limited to the Preposition if and cannot occur with the Subordinator:

    There were about six people in the audience, if that.    [preposition if]
    *Someone told me there were six people in the audience, but I wonder if that.    [subordinator if]

These ten largely independent arguments provide overwhelming evidence for the difference between the two ifs. Those syntactic differences are there despite the fact that the two versions of the joke with which I began (the funny original version and the oddly unfunny conditional version) have very much the same semantic effect. A conditional has an effect very similar to that of posing a question that is crucial to the evaluation of the matrix clause: If the cap fits, wear it has an effect very similar to the sequence Does the cap fit? Then wear it.

There are absolutely no dictionaries anywhere that treat if as a preposition. They all disagree with what I have just said. But I'm not here to give you just the truths that dictionary makers have so far felt they can stomach. I'm here to give you the whole truth. All printed dictionaries of English are wrong. Sorry, but that's the way it is. Deal with it.


  1. Brett R said,

    November 21, 2009 @ 4:20 pm

    All dictionaries are wrong except the Simple English Wiktionary.

    [You're right; the Simple English Wiktionary seems to be following The Cambridge Grammar. My generalization refers to the print medium. —GKP]

  2. vp said,

    November 21, 2009 @ 7:03 pm

    When I was a youngster I remember being told, (presumably by an adherent of the One Right Way school of thought) that sense (1) is "incorrect" and must always be replaced by "whether".

    An interesting double-meaning would be a sentence such as

    * Tell your doctor if you are taking any medication.

    Suppose I'm not taking any medication: does this sentence command me to tell my doctor that fact?

  3. James D said,

    November 21, 2009 @ 7:14 pm

    The distinction between the two ifs exists in other languages. Welsh uses "os" for the interrogative subordinate one and "pe" for the conditional one. Maybe this reveals something about lexicographers.

  4. Matthew Walenski said,

    November 21, 2009 @ 7:49 pm

    That lexicographers need to mind their pe's and o's?

    /my apologies to Q

  5. MJ said,

    November 21, 2009 @ 8:02 pm

    You might want to take a look at Will Starr's paper, "Conditionals and Questions", here:

    (I note in passing that it's by a philosopher, so if you're one of those people who thinks philosophers have nothing worthwhile to say about language, maybe you don't want to take a look at it.)

    [Goodness, how little you know me. I thought Language Log readers were well acquainted with the fact that my romantic partner and life companion is a philosopher who has worthwhile things to say about language! Of course I will look at it. —GKP]

  6. marie-lucie said,

    November 21, 2009 @ 9:15 pm

    I learned to use "whether" rather than "if" for a subordinate clause, and I still feel self-conscious about using "if" even though the word seems to be the majority usage.

    But I think that it is always "whether" in "whether … or not", so perhaps "-ther" is the same old suffix as in "either" and "other", which also imply a choice between two possibilities.

  7. J. Goard said,

    November 21, 2009 @ 10:49 pm

    *If there is any cake left I don't know. [subordinator if]

    There is a long example at the end of Larkin's "Mr. Bleaney", which has the feel (to good effect) of a garden path, presumably for this very reason:

    But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
    Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
    Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
    And shivered, without shaking off the dread

    That how we live measures our own nature,
    And at his age having no more to show
    Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
    He warranted no better, I don't know.

  8. Ken Brown said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 12:38 am

    The dictionaries might be wrong. But many four-year-old native speakers of English (and probably almost all eight-year-olds) get it right every time even though no-one ever taught it to them! Isn't that amazing? :-)

    (who could have taught it to them if no-one knew? No-one that most schoolkids are likely to meet anyway)

    It should be a cautionary tale for prescriptivists. If even little kids get this hard stuff right without you having to tell them how, why are you telling adults how to speak their own language?

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 2:59 am

    The NSOED, M-W, and unabridged and AHD distinguish between these two functions. They call if a conjunction in both senses, and naturally they don't mention any of the interesting arguments that Prof. Pullum makes above (except that the AHD has a usage note that says not to use the irrealis form with the subordinator sense of if, if I may translate), but they know the difference.

    [Yes, they know there's a difference. But they don't recognize it as justification for a category distinction. —GKP]

  10. DusK said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 5:04 am

    The incorrect version of #9 can technically be analyzed as "I (can/will) wonder if (I am) instructed to do so". Very unnatural-sounding (as well as implausible), though.

  11. Lance said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 5:52 am


    You've certainly convinced me that subordinating if is a different creature than the other if. I hope you'll forgive a semi-naive question (not naive linguistically, naive syntactically): why is the not-the-subordinating one called a "preposition"? From what I recall of my syntax classes, and bearing in mind that my classes, like anyone else's, weren't theory-neutral, one of the marks of a declarative clause was that it can't be the object of a preposition, in contrast to nouns and interrogative clauses. Thus, you get a contrast between the acceptable I'm certain of the time and I'm certain of who came and the unacceptable *I'm certain of that John came (which is fine without the preposition).

    So if if is a preposition in I'll jump in if you do, it's a very different kind of preposition from of or about (I know {why; about why; that; *about that} John left), and others of that ilk. Does it share other properties in common with those?

    [The generalization is not that prepositions can't take clauses. They all take subordinate interrogatives (the question of whether we should accept it), and prepositions like after take declaratives (after they left); but prepositions resist taking expanded declarative clauses — the ones with the subordinator that at the beginning. Even so, there are exceptions: prepositions like except don't have any incompatibility with that-clause complements (I'd join, except that the current members are such a bunch of dweebs), and a few less commonly recognized prepositions derived from participles like provided, seeing, and given are happy with that-clauses as well. —GKP]

  12. Army1987 said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 7:19 am

    Also Italian uses "se" for both meaning; and as a bonus, it has no word unambiguously meaning "whether".

  13. Adrian said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 9:31 am

    Has "if" always also meant "whether" or was it an extension?

    btw, I started reading the Starr paper, only to find "one phenomena" on page 2. Eek.

  14. Tom Saylor said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 9:40 am

    GKP says:

    (1) I don't know if the car will start.

    (2) We won't go if the car won't start.
    The two ifs share an etymology, but they have grown apart.

    Traditional grammars do not recognize this. They would say we have the same item in (1) and (2): a "subordinating conjunction".

    Is it true that the traditional grammars do not recognize this? The fact that traditional grammars (some of them, anyway) fully approve of the use of "if" in (2) but stigmatize the use of "if" in (1) would seem to indicate that they *do* recognize the distinction. The mere fact that they apply the same term ("subordinating conjunction") to both sorts of "if" does not show that they recognize no functional distinction between them. More generally, I don't think that traditional grammars claim or even imply that there are no important functional distinctions to be found among the items that they lump into any one of the traditional categories.

  15. Tom Saylor said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 9:49 am

    GKP says:

    2. The Preposition if can be replaced by other prepositions such as after, but the Subordinator can't:

    I'll jump in if you do. [preposition if]
    I'll jump in after you do.

    I don't know if I'll jump in. [subordinator if]
    *I don't know after I'll jump in.

    This argument will not convince the traditional grammarian (if that's what it's meant to do) because the traditional grammarian regards the "after" in "I'll jump in after you do" as a subordinating conjunction, not as a preposition.

  16. Corrigeur said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

    Conditional clauses certainly are different from questions. But I don't think the "if" is a preposition in the conditional, and I don't think the "if" in the two constructions is different. Here are some reasons to think conditional "if" is NOT a preposition but a conjunction (complementizer) like the one in questions, and to think the two "ifs" are the same:

    1. You can't strand "if" by moving the clause after it to the front of the sentence:

    *(*That) you jump in, I'll jump in if

    You can do this with the objects of real prepositions:

    This movie, I cried after.
    That you jumped in, we were amazed at.

    But you can't do this with conjunctions, question 'if' or question 'whether'

    *You'll jump in it's likely that.
    *(*That) you'll jump in I don't know if.
    *(*That) you'll jump in I don't know whether.

    So "if" is acting like a conjunction or question-introducer, even in a conditional.

    2. In contrary-to-fact conditionals, you can place an auxiliary verb to the left of the subject – but only if 'if' is missing:

    If I had known you were coming, I would have baked a cake.
    Had I known you were coming, I would have baked a cake.
    *If had/*Had if I known you were coming, I would have baked a cake.

    Question "if" acts exactly like this, in conversational Englsh:

    They don't know if he is coming or not.
    They don't know is he coming or not.
    *They don't know if is he coming or not.
    *They don't know is if he coming or not.

    Once again, the two "ifs" are acting the same. There's nothing like this with bona fide prepositions.

    3. Adding "or not" requires replacing "if" with "whether"- in both conditionals and questions:

    *They don't know if or not he is coming.
    They don't know whether or not he is coming.

    *If or not you jump in, I'll jump in.
    Whether or not you jump in, I'll jump in.

    [Very interesting observations — signs that conditional if has even more in common with interrogatives than just the rough equivalence in meaning with which I began the above post. But on the third of Corrigeur's points, Whether or not you jump in, I'll jump in is (the closed ungoverned type of) the exhaustive conditional construction discussed in section 14.6 of chapter 8 in The Cambridge Grammar, pages 761 to 765. Our analysis of them is that they constitute a way in which an interrogative clause may be used as an adjunct expressing a set of conditions of which one logically has to be satisfied because jointly they cover all the bases. Whether or not you jump in is genuinely an interrogative clause (so we would not claim it exemplifies the conditional preposition structure), and it covers a set of two conditions: (i) you jump in, and (ii) you don't jump in. But between them those two cover every logical possibility. So what an interrogative clause adjunct of this sort says is that it simply doesn't matter what you do about jumping in, the main clause holds anyway. (For the philosophers among you: a rock-solid argument of the form: "either P or not-P; if P then Q; if not-P then Q; therefore Q".) —GKP]

  17. Dan T. said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 12:10 pm

    Programming languages use "if" in the second (conditional) sense:

    if (x > 1) { print "x is greater than one\n"; } else { print "x is not greater than one\n"; }

  18. marie-lucie said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 12:10 pm

    a) I'll jump in … if you do/after you do/from the high platform/whether you do or not/ etc

    b) I don't know if/whether … I'll jump in/I want to risk it/you are crazy/etc.

    Could the difference be that in a) if you do is added as a complement to a declarative sentence (which would be fine without this complement, and could also admit a variety of others) but in b) if/whether I'll jump in is the complement of the verb know (which always supposes a complement, whether actual, or understood from the context)? Only the a) constructions can invert the clausal complement, which is not necessary to the grammaticality of the sentence, like an adverbial complement.

  19. marie-lucie said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

    (sorry, I think that GKP covered this by using the term "adjunct" for what I likened to an adverbial complement).

  20. Franz Bebop said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

    But how do we know that "preposition" isn't now the new rag-bag ?

    Just for the sake of argument, suppose someone were to claim that all words (such as if) which previously had been called conjunctions and which GKP now asserts are prepositions, are in fact neither conjunctions nor prepositions, but constitute an entirely distinct part of speech, which doesn't have any name yet. Let's call it category-X.

    What is your proof that if is a preposition, rather than a word of proposed category-X? Is it necessary to lump all words of category-X into the category prepositions, or is this decision purely arbitrary? If this decision is arbitrary, then the original arrangement, lumping category-X together with conjunctions, arbitrarily, might have no less merit. What forces us to lump category-X words together with prepositions? The proofs in the original post don't address this question.

    Aren't there some words which we all agree are prepositions, but which can never, ever function as category-X words? What about the words with or against, for example? Is it possible to swap these words into any of the example preposition sentences?

  21. marie-lucie said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 3:22 pm


    This movie, I cried after.
    That you jumped in, we were amazed at.

    Those sentences don't sound English to me. Are they?

  22. Mr Punch said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

    They don't sound English to me, either — that is, they sound like the English of someone whose native language has different sentence structures.

  23. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 3:49 pm


    I can imagine "This movie I cried after." The other sentence doesn't sound English to me either.

    On another topic you brought up, the NSOED says that the second element of whether is indeed the same as that of other. Either is a compound of the base of whether and that of aye, meaning "at all times", a word I've never heard "in the wild", as it survives only (mostly?) in Scotland.

  24. marie-lucie said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 4:20 pm

    Thank you, JF. I had never heard the etymology of either.

  25. Army1987 said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 4:41 pm

    I fully agree with Franz Bebop in that IMO The Cambrige Grammar's definition of "preposition" is quite a ragbag. Why on Earth is "unhappily" an adverb but "afterwards" a preposition? (I hope etymology has nothing to do with that.) So, how can I tell whether "again" is a preposition or an adverb?
    IMO, the "off" in "She took off the label" is sufficiently different from that in "She jumped off the wall" that I can't see a real reason to consider them in the same class.

  26. Adrian said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 5:30 pm

    JF: I've only used "aye" (in the sense "always") in the expression "Yours aye" at the end of a letter.

  27. Ken Brown said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 6:00 pm

    marie-lucie said:
    This movie, I cried after.
    That you jumped in, we were amazed at.
    Those sentences don't sound English to me. Are they?

    Nor to me. Or borderline anyway. The first one sounds like an attempt at a humourous Yiddishism. The second is even odder – in real life I'd expect something like: "That you jumped in amazed us"

    "They don't know is he coming or not" also fails my introspective grammaticaliser. If anything its even worse. Maybe its OK somewhere in the US but it sounds wrong to me.

  28. John Cowan said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 6:35 pm

    Marie-Lucie: "if … or not" is fine, as in "I don't know if he could swim or not".

  29. Philip TAYLOR said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 7:24 pm

    John Cowan : is there not an odd mixture of tenses in "I don't know if he could swim or not" ? Would this not be more idiomatic as "I don't know if he can swim or not" and/or "I didn't know if he could swim or not" ?

  30. Steve said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 11:29 pm

    James D beat me to pointing this out, but many non-Indo-European languages use different words (or different syntactic structures) to express this distinction, and I think English and its relatives are unusual (or at least not the norm) in having the same word for both. For example, in Mandarin, the 'preposition' form would be expressed with a word like 'if', whereas "I don't know if it's true" would be expressed with an interrogative, more like wo bu zhidao shi-bu-shi zhende, lit. "I not know 'is it true?' ". (This is something learners have trouble with, and often make errors of literal translation by saying things like *wo bu zhidao ruguo shi zhende.) And it's not just Chinese; lots of Turkic languages, for example, use conditional morphology for the 'preposition' forms and complementizers for the 'subordinating' forms, and the two bear no resemblance to one another. I'm sure other commenters here could list more families that haven't confounded their 'ifs' like English and its neighbors have.

  31. J. Goard said,

    November 23, 2009 @ 12:25 am

    I think one of the key features of prepositions is the conceptual relationship on two fronts: to the verb, and to its object. If you accept, as I do, both that parts of speech are prototype categories and that they are fundamentally semantic, it is not surprising to find the same preposition showing a stronger connection to the verb in some cases and the object in others.

    @Corrigeur: note the decreasing naturalness of (1a-d) with the fronted prepositional phrase, and the increasing naturalness of (2a-d) with the fronted object (stranded preposition):

    (1) a. On Saturday, I'm gonna play soccer.
    b. On that tightrope, I'm gonna walk.
    c. On your mistakes, I'm not gonna dwell.
    d. On that girl, I'm gonna hit.
    (2) a. Saturday, I'm gonna play soccer on.
    b. That tightrope, I'm gonna walk on.
    c. Your mistakes, I'm not gonna dwell on.
    d. That girl, I'm gonna hit on.

    On the one end are prototypical "prepositional verbs"; on the other end, the preposition and its object are strongly bonded, verging on adverb territory. The (b) example shows "on" closest to the prototype of preposition.

    GKP's argument seems solid. The badness of you jump in, I'll jump in if follows from the fact that prepositional "if" has a much greater semantic bond with its object than with the verb.

  32. Daniel Cavanagh said,

    November 23, 2009 @ 2:07 am

    James D, you may know more about Welsh than I do (which is very possible), but from what I remember you are only half right. What Steve said about many languages using the interrogative for the first example is true of Welsh too, whereas os and pe are both used for the second example. One is just used in hypothetical statements and the other for normal statements that you believe can or even will occur (I can't remember which is which). For instance, "I'd climb trees if I was cat" is hypothetical and would be covered only by one of the words. The other word would cover the other prepositional use

    Been a long time since I've done Welsh, though, so shoot me down :p

  33. Oliver said,

    November 23, 2009 @ 6:07 am

    As German and Dutch make the difference, I wonder whether this is a romance development and French influence in English.

  34. Faldone said,

    November 23, 2009 @ 11:51 am

    "They don't know is he coming or not"

    This sounds similar to if not identical to a grammatical statement in AAVE.

  35. dwmacg said,

    November 23, 2009 @ 11:53 am

    @Franz Bebop,

    With Christmas approaching, we could agree to call them candied nuts.

    @J. Goard,

    It sounds like you've been reading your Langacker. I heartily approve. L. characterizes prepositions by "their participation in the prepositional phrase construction, wherein a nominal elaborates the primary landmark of the relational predication and follows it directly in the phonological sequence" (Foundations of Cognitive Grammar, Vol II, p. 153). (Bear with me, I'm thinking this through as I write.) So if I understand what Geoff and you are saying in those terms, the relationship in question is between two propositions expressed as sentences but understood nominally (in L's terms, one would be the trajector and the other the landmark). So "I'll jump in" is the trajector in this case, "You jump in" is the landmark.

    Does that sound like an accurate characterization? Or am I projecting my own theoretical biases on what you're saying?

  36. J. Goard said,

    November 23, 2009 @ 1:13 pm

    That seems right, but I also want to emphasize both the usage-based view, according to which syntagmatic constructions are generalizations over instances, and the consequence that a single sentence may involve two or more combinatorial paths. In the case of prepositions, there is a schema where it is the profile determinant (head) of a landmark, and another where it elaborates the verb, and these constructions overlap considerably.

  37. J. Goard said,

    November 23, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

    Sorry, not "elaborates" the verb, but modifies or is otherwise grouped with it.

  38. dwmacg said,

    November 23, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

    Thanks, yes, that makes sense. But it makes me wonder then if the interrogative if could be analyzed as a preposition as well, but one that is more closely attached to the verb.

  39. Rubrick said,

    November 23, 2009 @ 4:10 pm

    [Goodness, how little you know me. I thought Language Log readers were well acquainted with the fact that my romantic partner and life companion is a philosopher who has worthwhile things to say about language! Of course I will look at it. —GKP]

    I fear you overestimate the extent to which readers think of Language Log as a collection of distinct individuals with actual biographies, rather than a collective like Bourbaki. :-) In all seriousness, while I've read virtually every LL post for years, without faces and voices to attach to authors they do all tend to blur together. I confess I don't always even note the byline.

  40. marie-lucie said,

    November 23, 2009 @ 9:46 pm

    Rubrick, speak for yourself! I always look at the byline, and I can often tell who is writing even before checking. GKP shares quite a bit of his personal life with readers (thanks, GKP), and he and several others have their pictures in various places on the internet.

  41. Fiona Hanington said,

    November 24, 2009 @ 2:18 am

    Ditto, marie-lucie! The personalities are part of what make LL the special place that it is.

  42. rpsms said,

    November 24, 2009 @ 12:54 pm

    In the original joke, it reads like ad-copy lead-in. It implies a whole paragraph of follow-up ad copy promising an astounding cure for the invented condition you never knew you had. Send in the coupon with .99$ and a SASE. I think that's where the humor lies.

    This is the main reason why the Church of Subgenius pamphlets are so humorous.

  43. Fetcher said,

    November 24, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

    Just an off-handed comment here as a Latinist (ugh, I feel icky giving myself a label!):
    Conditional "if" (the prepositional form that GKP distinguishes) is handled quite differently from the subordinator "if". "Si" handles conditionals (and has seemingly passed into at least Italian), whereas the subordinator version of "if" is handled an an indirect question introduced by various items: -ne, num, utrum…an (whether…or), -ne…an, all with the force of "whether" ex:
    miror possemne in aqua ambulare. (I wonder whether I could walk on water)
    miror num in aqua ambulare possem. (same)

    miror utrum in aqua ambulare possem an non. (I wonder whether or not I could walk on water)

    miror possemne in aqua ambulare an non. (same as last)

    All of these are based on the simple question "possumne in aqua ambulare?" (Can I walk on water?)

    It seems that each example of subordinator "if" that GKP mentioned is in fact represented by an indirect question in Latin. Therefore, was that concept refined through the Romance languages (via French?) and brought to English? Perhaps we get this split personality of "if" from that. But then again, I tend to give TOO much credit to Latin; damn you, bias!

  44. marie-lucie said,

    November 24, 2009 @ 7:40 pm

    Fetcher, what do you mean by "refined through the Romance languages"? These languages have lost the difference between si and utrum, how is this a refinement?

  45. Peter-Arno Coppen said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 7:29 am

    The subordinator 'if' can be replaced by an interrogative phrase, whereas the preposition 'if' cannot:

    (1) I don't know [at what time] I'll jump in.
    (2)* I'll jump in [at what time] you'll jump in.

    It can even be a preposed argument:

    (2a) I don't know if you want this
    (2b) I don't know what you want
    (3a) I'll be glad if you want this
    (3b) *I'll be glad what you want

    Furthermore, it seems to me that the if-island-constraint is much weaker in case of subordinate 'if':

    (4) *?What do you wonder if Larry bought?
    (5) *What would you be surprised if Larry bought?

    Is that a genuine observation? (Sorry, I'm not a native speaker of English).

  46. Gordon P. Hemsley said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 3:04 am

    Pardon my digression, but the concept of 'because' being a preposition came up in my Syntax I class this past week. Both my professor and I took issue with this classification and chalked it up to an error on the part of the textbook author.

    However, you repeat the concept here matter-of-factly. Would you mind explaining this (or pointing me somewhere that does)? Thanks.

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