The idiom police, if you will

« previous post | next post »

Today's "Candorville," by Darrin Bell:

(As usual, click on the image for a larger version.)

This isn't the first time that Lemont Brown (Candorville's nerdy protagonist) has intruded on the conversation of the two women on the bench. Here's the Aug. 6, 2008 strip:

In the earlier strip, Lemont's beef with nominative conjoined objects is slightly undercut by the spelling of grammatically with one m, but such is the inevitability of Muphry's Law.

In his latest intrusion, it's refreshing to see Lemont identify himself as a member of the Idiom Police, since his too-literal reading of "if you will" has nothing to do with grammar. But working for the Idiom Police must be a thankless task, since English idioms are rife with apparent illogicality. When I was writing the On Language column for The New York Times Magazine, readers often wrote in with idioms that they found troublesome. I responded to two such examples: "if worst comes to worst" and "have your cake and eat it too." But there are many more where those came from.

As for "if you will," the Oxford English Dictionary says it is "sometimes used parenthetically to qualify a word or phrase: = ‘if you wish it to be so called’, ‘if you choose or prefer to call it so.’" Citations are given for the exact phrase back to the 16th century, with similar elliptical uses dating back to Old English. Geoffrey Pullum has noted that "if you will" can serve the same function as the much-maligned discourse particle like: "a way to signal hedging about vocabulary choice — a momentary uncertainty about whether the adjacent expression is exactly the right form of words or not." Beyond that sort of hedging, "if you will" and its phrasal kin ("so to speak," "as it were," "if you like") may be doing other pragmatic work, such as "making a concession… without commit[ting] the writer or speaker to that position fully" (as the UsingEnglish website puts it).

What "if you will" does not do, of course, is require the interlocutor to "accept the words you just chose to say," as Lemont claims. I suspect Lemont's the type of non-Gricean guy who responds to the discursive filler "you know" with "No, I don't know."

(Hat tip, Nancy Friedman.)


  1. Henning Makholm said,

    July 2, 2011 @ 1:46 pm

    If the meaning of an idiom followed systematically from the meaning of its parts, would it still be an "idiom" at all?

  2. keri said,

    July 2, 2011 @ 1:57 pm

    The problem with idioms like "if you will" is that some people use them every other utterance. Also ones like "at the end of the day".

    They're benign on their own, even useful, but when they're used constantly and with very little relevance to the rest of the sentence, the listener (ie: me) grows weary and soon is unable to accept the idiom as idiomatic rather than literal, and every future instance is thus poisoned. I wish it weren't so, but "if you will" drives me crazy these days because of an over-user I worked with a few years ago.

  3. hector said,

    July 2, 2011 @ 3:05 pm

    Glad to see you nailed "if worst comes to worst," which has always made perfect, logical sense to me. I once lived in a log cabin five miles into the bush in the Yukon, that one had to walk out of (no passable road). The worst-case scenario was a forest fire. If the worst case-scenario came to the worst, i.e. actually happened, what would we do? The plan was to hop in the canoe, paddle out into the middle of the small lake, and hope for the best. I have no idea whether this plan would have worked.

    Of course, usually the worst doesn't come to the worst, and remains a troubling fear kicking around in your head.

    And as you say, "if worse comes to worst" expresses a quite different concept: you're already in a bad situation, which goes catastrophic on you.

  4. majolo said,

    July 2, 2011 @ 3:43 pm

    Forget about "if you will," what's up with the "they" in panel 2? I'm fine with singular they, but not generally when used to refer to one person of discernible sex within earshot.

  5. Ellen K. said,

    July 2, 2011 @ 3:56 pm


    I take the "they" in panel two to be generic. He's talking about the use of the phrase in general, not just that instance of it.

  6. bloix said,

    July 2, 2011 @ 4:54 pm

    Lemont does not understand that the word "will" is not a auxiliary verb in this context, and means "to perform an act of will." Usually I/you/he/she will" is short for "will __" – as in "will you take this woman as your wife -= "I will [take this woman etc.]" But not this time.

    It's pretty much obsolete in this meaning. The only example I can think of – and this will probably be unfamiliar to most readers – is Theodore Herzl's statement Wenn ihr wollt, ist es kein Märchen, usually translated as "If you will it, it is no dream" (and adopted by Walter in the Big Lebowski: "Way to go, Dude. If you will it, it is no dream.")

  7. The Ridger said,

    July 2, 2011 @ 5:25 pm

    Lemont is an idiot, in general, and I feel very pleased that he was called on his behavior, even though he's so much an idiot he doesn't realize it. Because, indeed: "idiom police" would be a pointless job since, as Henning Makhom noted, idioms generally aren't the sum of their words.

  8. Rudy said,

    July 2, 2011 @ 7:21 pm

    Can "if you will" be used when speaking to someone who may object to the language being used? For example: I am having a conversation with Mr. A, a life-long friend, and I know that he is a fairly conservative individual and not prone to cursing, so when I tell him about my jerk boss and his rude behavior toward me, I say "…And then, can you believe the nerve of that bastard, if you will, to have me stay until 10 at night?" While I concede that Mr. A cannot do anything about the word I just uttered(as Lamont points out in the cartoon), he can choose to get up and leave the conversation. But if I say "if you will", can it act as a signal to Mr. A that I am aware of his values concerning language, am taking them into account?

    And yes, Mr. A is extremely conservative.

    That is my question. My comment is: This is a wonderful blog.

  9. MJ said,

    July 2, 2011 @ 7:56 pm

    @Ridger Pointless, but the idiom police are everywhere. The very same person who will scorn "to the manor born" on the grounds that it makes no sense in the context of Hamlet's speech and therefore is inadmissible (which, in fact, is untrue (Ben has heard my account of the history of this phrase)) will defend the obscure petitio principii sense of "begs the question" and reject the literal reanalysis of it as "invites the question." There's no making sense of these folks.

  10. Eric P Smith said,

    July 2, 2011 @ 9:10 pm

    If Lemont were a true member of the Idiom Police, he wouldn’t have said couldn’t help but overhear.  He would have said couldn’t help overhearing, or couldn’t but overhear.  Hoist by his own petard?

  11. Eric P Smith said,

    July 2, 2011 @ 9:19 pm

    …as I was hoist with mine! With, not by.

  12. MJ said,

    July 2, 2011 @ 9:55 pm

    @Eric–Nah, you're fine, MW-11 gives both "by" and "with." Of course, we also have "hoisted," even though from what I can glean from MW-11, "hoist" was the past tense of 'hoise."

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 2, 2011 @ 10:04 pm

    @Rudy: I don't remember encountering if you will about something that might be offensive. Of course the fact that you're apologizing is the main thing, but I'd probably say if I may or if you'll forgive me or sorry in that situation.

    It doesn't seem right in the comic, either. I'd expect it after something more fanciful.

    @bloix: The main verb "will" is still around, and not just in translations of the Inferno. ("This has been willed where what is willed must be.") In fiction you read about somebody willing the ball to drop into the hole or whatever.

    A former co-worker, when he dropped something or the like, would glare at me and say, "You willed that!" (As a joke.)

  14. Ellen K. said,

    July 2, 2011 @ 10:11 pm

    It strikes me that "will" as a main verb is usually transitive, and is in the examples given here. Whereas the phrase "if you will" uses it in transitively.

  15. Nathan Myers said,

    July 3, 2011 @ 12:58 am

    "Grammar Police" is all too respectful. "Grammar Nannies" suggests an appropriate degree of distaste.

    The modern form of "if you will" is "if you like". The facts might have supported a complaint of archaism, but it would be weak. Shakespeare using it in a title makes it current enough for me. Of course, it's Darrin Bell, the cartoonist who thinks he's lampooning grammar nannies, flashing his ignorance here.

  16. Janice Byer said,

    July 4, 2011 @ 7:22 pm

    My sense of "if you will", if you will, is my sense of the term or phrase preceding begs to request, for the sake of my point, your indulgence.
    I tend to use it archly.

  17. Boris said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 12:32 pm

    The problem with "having your cake and eating it too" is that, at least to me, have sounds too much like a synonym of eat. For some reason, this doesn't occur if you reverse the verbs. Perhaps it's because "have your cake" by itself is an unusual construction. "I have my cake" (rather than "I have a cake") seems to mean something like (1a) "You asked me to bake/buy you a cake. Here it is." or (1b) "The cake was successfully delivered to me". "You can have your cake" (rather than "you can have this cake") means (2a) "keep it; I don't want it" or (2b) "eat it, no one else will". "You can't have your cake" (rather than "you can't have that cake"), then can mean the opposite of (1a) "I have the cake you asked for, but will not give it to you" or (sort of) the opposite of (2b) "You shouldn't eat your cake for whatever reason".

    Having the phrase reversed allows for the "it" in "have it" to expand to "that cake" instead of "your cake". Still, the phrasing seems odd without adding a "still" as in "you can't eat your cake and still have it".

    I'm not sure how to force (or even have in the first place) a non-sequential simultaneous reading, though, because having the cake is a binary condition (you either have some cake left or you've eaten all of it), while eating is a process, so you can in fact have (some of) your cake at the same time as you are eating it.

  18. Maureen said,

    July 9, 2011 @ 11:19 pm

    The cartoon is written as if "if you will" were actually a current phrase one were apt to hear in conversation, instead of something only to be read in 19th century novels. Most of you seem to concur that this is something actually alive in the world.

    Is this another Coasts thing?

RSS feed for comments on this post