If you will

« previous post | next post »

Geoff Pullum, "It's like so unfair", 11/22/2003:

Why are the old fogeys and usage whiners of the world so upset about the epistemic-hedging use of like, as in She's, like, so cool? The old fogeys use equivalent devices themselves, all the time. An extremely common one is "if you will". […]

Like functions in younger speakers' English as something perfectly ordinary: 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. If the English language didn't implode when if you will took on this kind of role among the baby boomers, it will survive having like take on an extremely similar role for their kids.

I responded  that "Like is, like, not really like if you will" (11/22/2003), mostly on the basis of a difference in maximum frequency of usage. I was reminded of this argument, and tempted to take it back, when I read "Texas Gov. Rick Perry: 'Obviously gay marriage is not fine with me…'", FRCBlog 7/28/2011.

In his interview with the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins, Gov. Rick Perry achieves a striking local density of instances of "if you will", for example here:

And that is the reason that uh the federal marriage amendment
uh is being offered.
Because- and it's those-
you know it's- it's a small group of-
of- of activist judges, and-
and- and frankly a small
handful if you will
of- of states
and these liberal special interest groups
that are intent on
a redefinition if you will of marriage in- on the nation, on-
for all of us, which
I adamantly oppose.

And a couple of sentences later:

uh uh the- the- the con- the-
the overall constitutional uh
protection if you will
by and how we amend our United States constitution to reflect
the values of- of the nation as a whole
((is)) very important

A quick web search suggests that if Rick Perry throws his hat into the 2012 presidential ring, as speculation suggests he may well do, empirically-minded students of discourse particles (if a three-word phrase can be called a "particle"?) will be treated to plenty of new data on the distribution of "if you will". On the other hand, Lemont Brown will not be pleased (Ben Zimmer, "The idiom police, if you will", 7/2/2011)…

(link) The best concrete evidence that I'm really not running for president is this book, because when you read this book, you're going to see me talking about issues that for someone running for public office, it's kind of been the third rail if you will.

(link) So Texans aren't getting into their savings by and large. So, there may be some folks that it's very tempting to go take that money, spend it on recurring events, recurring costs, if you will.

(link) Obviously, being able to speak English is a very important aspect of getting ahead in this country. I'm a big fan of total emersion of individuals who have English as a second language. Getting them to be able to speak right and converse appropriately in English should be all of our goals, so every way we can do that to help people become more engaged if you will in our culture, being able to speak the language is a very important one.

(link) Well, we still believe in freedom in Texas, and when I say that, I'm talking about freedom from over-taxation, over-regulation, over-litigation. You know, there's a thousand-plus that add to the roles of the population of Texas every day. I mean just a huge migration coming into the state from places that do overtax and over-regulate, so that I think in a nutshell is the real difference that people see as Washington continues to be displaced, that one size fits all and trying to force us all into their image, if you will.

(link) Why is Texas kind of recession-proof, if you will? As a matter of fact, just today I think, Michael, you said someone had put a report out that the first state that’s coming out of the recession is going to be the State of Texas. I told him, I said, ‘We’re in one?’

(link) The 10th amendment clearly says the states are where the action is supposed to be, if you will.

Of course, I don't mean to suggest that Rick Perry is unique among contemporary American politicians, or even among potential 2012 Republican candidates for president, in using "if you will" as a hedge.

But here's an interesting thing. Gov. Perry characteristically deploys "if you will" after the word or phrase being hedged — "to the right", if you will. In a quick web search, I see some evidence that Mitt Romney characteristically deploys his "if you will" hedges "to the left":

(link) “There are some unions that continue to train their workers effectively, their members effectively,” Romney said. “But in some cases, if you will the union bosses — the union CEOs that are running the unions — perhaps put the interests of themselves ahead of the interests of their workers. And that may have been what happened in South Carolina.”

(link) Gov. Romney responded: "I don't do any particular raids, but we'll follow the law. And I, I'm not familiar with what they're doing in Nevada, personally, I'm in Massachusetts, all right, that was where I was governor and I believe in following the law and I also believe that medical marijuana is, if you will, a Trojan Horse for bringing marijuana into our society and I think that's the wrong way to go. I think the far better way to go is to treat people with other medications that are available, and synthetic marijuana that provides the same pain relief that can be received by, uh, by marijuana."

(linkMitt Romney told the Herald that "I am, if you will, personally pro-life."

(link"I know a lot of people have been asking, 'when is this campaign really going to get going? When do the gears get into place?' And the answer is today," Romney said on the call. "This is the time that we are, if you will, activating our friends across the country."

Update — and of course other politicians also use this expression:

so this is not
to talk about gay bashing
do we understand that, that's not what this is about
but it's to say
that this
legal enforcement
of a new status
same-sex marriage status
homosexuality, lesbianism
bringing it into the main stream if you will, giving it a legitimacy if you will
that that will impact
not only
uh the gay community ((but)) every man, woman, and child, particularly the schools

I'm sure that there are plenty of Democrats in the mix as well, but my quick web search for examples from Barack Obama and Joe Biden has come up empty so far.


  1. Kathryn said,

    July 29, 2011 @ 11:07 am

    I realize it's a bit late to argue with Mr. Pullum's 2003 post, and that doing so here is off-topic, but I have a hard time accepting that "like" is used in the instances he cites (or, indeed, at all by the population he references) to indicate hedging about vocabulary choice. To me, there is no doubt that the speaker of "she's like, so cool" not only believes her to be extremely cool, but also expects the hearer will agree in that judgment. Doesn't "like" function more as an intensifier in such usages?

    Not that I don't agree with the (arguably) underlying point that each generation whines about the catch-phrases of other generations, while enthusiastically employing its own catchphrases. Y'know?

    [(myl) You might be right, but you should take a look at Muffy Siegel's paper "Like: The Discourse Particle and Semantics", J. of Semantics 19(1), Feb. 2002, If you still disagree, you should be able to find distributional evidence for your views — or you could do an experiment!]

  2. John Lawler said,

    July 29, 2011 @ 11:30 am

    Clearly Mr. Perry is a Rightist and Mr. Romney a Leftist, and now we have documentary syntactic evidence for this claim, if you will.

  3. Angus Grieve-Smith said,

    July 29, 2011 @ 11:46 am

    In sentences like "She's like so cool," "like" may be used as an intensifier, but it seems to also be a focus marker.

  4. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 29, 2011 @ 12:28 pm

    Stephen Fry is a big "if you will" user, albeit self-consciously. Watch any episode of QI and it'll probably come up several times.

  5. Eric said,

    July 29, 2011 @ 12:49 pm

    It seems that "sort of" serves a similar purpose in RP.

  6. GeorgeW said,

    July 29, 2011 @ 1:00 pm

    When I hear 'if you will,' I think, 'and if I won't?'

  7. Kathryn said,

    July 29, 2011 @ 1:11 pm

    Mark–what happens when amateurs try to mix it in with professionals; I'll see if I can find a way to access Ms. Siegel's article which, from its synopsis, would certainly seem to suggest that I'm barking up the wrong tree. A further proof I'm an amateur–Angus's "focus marker" sounds like a much better description of what I was thinking. Sigh. Shutting up now.

    [(myl) I don't in any way intend to shut you up with arguments ex auctoriate. On the contrary, I genuinely meant to invite you to look into things further. I think you might well be right that some uses of discourse-particle like are closer to marking focus or emphasis than to hedging or indicating approximation. Anyhow, I'll send you a .pdf of Muffy Siegel's article.]

  8. Bruce said,

    July 29, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

    I interpret teenagers' use of "like" slightly differently. I interpret it to mean "wait until I find the right word".

    Example: She's like (pause) so cool.

    This is consistent with the hedging interpretation, especially when there is no pause.

  9. J Lee said,

    July 29, 2011 @ 2:23 pm

    myl left out romney's best one where he hedged on his hunting experience: 'small critters, varmint, if you will,' there it was postposed lol

    [(myl) But that was in 2007. Times change, maybe hedging does too.]

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 29, 2011 @ 4:40 pm

    Is there any learning on a postposed/to-the-right usage of "like"? Googling turns up instances of the pattern "NAME is so cool like" and I can't figure out (so removed am I from Those Darn Kids and Their Newfangled Slang) exactly what that means that's different from "NAME is like so cool." I think I've seen other instances of the broader pattern "SUBJECT is [INTENSIFIER] ADJ like", but haven't done any checking this afternoon to try to locate some.

  11. Eric P Smith said,

    July 29, 2011 @ 4:44 pm

    First let me excarnadine the text…

    That's better!

    'Sort of' has been mentioned. It is a traditional hedge in my dialect. But I think it is used at least as often to hedge a meaning as to hedge the language in which the meaning is expressed. 45 years ago, our conductor in a student orchestra said, "I'd like a bigger sound from the … sort of … brass." He had no doubt as to what the brass section was called; he meant "I'd like a bigger sound from one of the sections, and I think it's the brass section."

    He remains anonymous as he is now a well-known conductor.

  12. Keith said,

    July 29, 2011 @ 4:44 pm

    How do "like" and "if you will" compare to "as it were"?

  13. Eric P Smith said,

    July 29, 2011 @ 4:44 pm

    The colour change worked in the preview!

  14. slobone said,

    July 29, 2011 @ 6:59 pm

    Sorry to say, I'm not an Oxford journal subscriber, and even for Language Log I'm not up to paying $25. But did she mention in the article that "like" can also replace "something like" as in He lives like 2 blocks from here, with the added possibility of exaggeration for effect, as in She's like 100 years old? I use both of those locutions myself, and I'm far from a teenager…

    [(myl) If you're curious about these questions, you could start by reading some of the previous coverage, for example the links posted here — especially this one, this one, and this one.

    But to answer your question in more detail, Muffy deals extensively with the approximative usage, but not specifically with the use in hyperbole. The theory that like signals a possible mismatch between words and meaning makes it available for hyperbolic use, as are other approximative expressions (e.g. "she's about 100 years old") Whether this has developed into an additional "sense" of the word is not clear to me. ]

  15. Stitch said,

    July 30, 2011 @ 10:40 am

    "Obviously gay marriage is not fine with me"

    OT, I've always been intrigued with the use of "obviously" in this pleading manner. Seldom is anything particularly obvious when you hear it. (I'm not a professional linguist but obviously I'm an intelligent and perceptive amateur.)

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 12:02 am

    @Stitch: I don't follow Texas politics, but I suspect Gov. Perry meant that it's obvious to anyone who knows his positions on social issues that he disapproves of gay marriage.

  17. Mark F. said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 9:27 am

    I see why you were only tempted to retract your claim. Perry seems to use "if you will" maybe once per five lines of text, rather than once per five words as in some of the examples in your earlier post.

  18. speedwell said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 7:27 am

    I tend to use you might say and you could say in this way, as well as "say", "or else", and "maybe". In a training class where I have, say, twenty people, I am, you could say, careful enough to maybe pace my speech so that everyone can follow, or else, you could say, I repeat myself, maybe, a couple of times…

  19. speedwell said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 7:28 am

    ugh, sorry for not closing the italic tag…

  20. FRED LAPIDES said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 4:33 pm

    In point of fact, I am over 80 and never used nor even heard "if you will."

  21. Jimlin said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 8:26 am

    Dick Cheney has always been a HUGE user of the "if you will" idiom.

  22. Suggested reading | G7Finance.com - Finance News & Personal Finance Resources said,

    December 14, 2011 @ 1:19 pm

    […] affect.) Mark Liberman was on the case with another Perryism, "if you will", back in July. And before anyone suggests that "if you will" means something and "like" […]

RSS feed for comments on this post