Americans: 90% on the right, if you will

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Having discovered that Rick Perry is a right-leaning hedger, if you will, while Mitt Romney is, if you will, a leftish hedger, I wondered what the distribution of these alternatives might be in general American usage.

So to start with, I took advantage of the feature that Mark Davies has added to his interface for COCA and other text corpora, which will give you a random sample of a set that's too large for convenient inspection as a whole. I needed this because COCA has 3,855 instances of the string "if you will" (for a rate of 3.69 per million words), and I neither wanted nor needed to classify all 3,855 of them.

In my classification, I distinguished four uses of "if you will":

(1) LEFT hedge and, if you will, they're the arteries in the system
that perspective sounds, if you will, very libertarian
(2) RIGHT hedge those who are attuned, if you will, to the discourse
Helena's kind of claimed her – forgive me, parents – bitchiness, if you will
(3) SOFTENER of imperatives let's look at item 49, if you will
talk to me, if you will, about how that was covered
(4) NOT a hedge or softener I'll get my missiles out of Cuba if you will get yours out of Turkey
If you will do that, I can get on very fast

In my classification of a random sample of 100 COCA "if you will" hits, the counts (and therefore, equivalently, percentages) were:

(1) LEFT hedge 8 8%
(2) RIGHT hedge 66 66%
(3) SOFTENER of imperatives 16 16%
(4) NOT a hedge or softener 10 10%

If we look only the hedges, 66 to 8 is about 66/74=89% cases where "if you will" follows the word or phrase it hedges, rather than preceding it.

I did the same thing with 75 of the 135 hits in the 26,151,602 words of  LDC conversational telephone speech (an overall rate of 5.16 instances of "if you will" per million words):

(1) LEFT hedge 6 8%
(2) RIGHT hedge 62 83%
(3) SOFTENER of imperatives 2 3%
(4) NOT a hedge or softener 6 8%

This is pretty much the same pattern — in particular, we see 62/68 = 91% cases where "if you will" follows rather than precedes what it hedges.

The big difference is that in the phone transcripts, there were only 3% softeners instead of 16%. That's probably because COCA's material is mostly interview transcripts, where things like this are instantly recognizable as Interviewerese: "General, tell me, if you will, where did this happen and why are you convinced that it was just road-clearing dynamite?" And  interviewees also have some rhetorical tactics where "if you will" serves as an imperative-softener: "So imagine , if you will, if you had to learn Dari or Pashto and pilot training and a new aircraft and, oh, by the way, go fly in combat." Both of these would be a little strange in an informal conversation, it seems to me.

Looking at the CTS transcripts also tends to confirm the plausible hypothesis that there are individual styles in things like this. Thus of the three "LEFT hedge" cases that I found, three came from one speaker:

um and then as they try to exercise that if you will censorship
um then they have a problem uh because people don't believe in that they say it should be exposed to anybody who wants to uh to read it
uh a lot of school systems use the public library so uh they go to the public library and nobody's sorta looking over their shoulder
to see what they've picked up or what they're sorta reading um there again the parent has to become involved and participate uh and if you will control
oh i well i guess many years ago i went to a school where you didn't have a library [laughter] but that was a little different uh nowadays i guess they all have a library but a lot of 'em are um
if you will um th- they utilize the public library because it might be uh in the same um building or the uh building right is uh adjacent to

In the cited collection of telephone conversations, men are more than twice as likely as women to use the hedging version of "if you will".


  1. Angus Grieve-Smith said,

    July 30, 2011 @ 12:36 pm

    So what about "like" in the phone transcripts?

    [(myl) See here.]

  2. Sili said,

    July 30, 2011 @ 8:23 pm

    a set that's too large for convenient inspection as a whole.

    I wonder how difficult it would be to set up an interface that asks your audience here to do the more labour intensive classifications?

    Feed the samples and categories into a poll of sorts (as on the Zooniverse) and send them out to subscribers to LL. I imagine that could work on the otherwise hard to classify "like"s.

    Of course, bigger projects are what Zooniverse usually works on, such as trying to read a cache of papyri in Greek:

    [(myl) With a bit of coding and some clever munging of APIs, you could automate the whole process, from idea through COCA query to crowdsourced annotation and blog post (or conference submission)…]

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 12:24 am

    Speaking of imagine, if you will, I saw as expected that imagine is the most common verb before if you will (with a comma in between). All 28 hits were imperatives; the next most common imperative was consider, with 6 hits. I wonder how many of the utterers of imagine, if you will were college professors (as I am).

  4. linda seebach said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 5:45 am

    Does it matter where in the sentence the thing being hedged is? Starting a sentence with "if you will" sounds odd to me. If that's true for most people, then if the thing being hedged is the first element, the hedge has to be on the right.

    [(myl) Out of the 127 instances of sentence-initial "if you will" in COCA, there are only three that seem to be hedges. One is punctuated as a sentence all on its own, and serves to hedge something in the previous speaker's turn:

    Are you a member of security?' # Yes . If you will . If you want to call me that .

    Another, from an interview transcript, hedges an item to the right — and seems OK to me:

    I think the reasons that the Brazils, the Argentinas, the South Africas and others have decided not to go down the nuclear path is not because of the pressure or suasion of the United States or anybody else, but they simply looked at it from their own political and strategic position and decided that on balance it didn't serve their interest . If you will, it was local reasons, not global reasons that led to their decision.

    And the third, also from an interview transcript, seems to me to have been wrongly punctuated:

    When pain persists, or an injury persists, input continues into the spinal cord and there are changes that take place in the sensitivity of the spinal cord . If you will, and the word I like to use is there is a memory of the experience.

    So you certainly seem to be right that sentence-initial hedging "if you will" is difficult at best.]

  5. Dick Margulis said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 6:38 pm

    Consider, if you will, that most telephone speech is unscripted. Having just uttered something that seems a bit off (presumptuous, perhaps, or too harsh, or just not quite the right word), I now want to hedge. The hedge is an afterthought. The likelihood of my deciding to hedge in advance seems, intuitively, to be low. So the results are unsurprising for the context.

  6. Will said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 9:22 pm

    @Dick Margulis, but by that logic, if you will would never appear in edited print. If its only purpose were to correct for errors as an afterthought, the editing process would render it a useless phrase.

    Pure speculation: Maybe what happens is the mind chooses a word and decides, before anything is spoken, to hedge it instead of searching for a better word. It constructs something like a "hedged noun phrase", and only then is it spoken. So the hedged noun phrase can have any internal configuration.

  7. Will said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 9:23 pm

    When I wrote this:

    It constructs something like a "hedged noun phrase"

    What I meant to write is this:

    It constructs, if you will, a "hedged noun phrase"

  8. Dick Margulis said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 3:53 am

    @Will: I was addressing only the situation presented—unscripted speech—and offering a plausible explanation for the preponderance of right hedges over left hedges. I was not suggesting that's the only situation where people hedge or that hedging is the only use for the phrase.

  9. Sili said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 11:25 am

    (myl) With a bit of coding and some clever munging of APIs, you could automate the whole process

    I sincerely hope that's a generic you, since I'm not Chris Lintott (who I now notice is younger than me …).

  10. Hermann G Burch said,

    August 6, 2011 @ 3:49 am

    Today heard: "If you would . .", t'was on a religious TV channel. By Google ngram viewer both "if you will" and "if you would" have a recent resurgence after 2000. The indicative "will" up to three times as frequent as "would" (optative?) but recently about double.

    BTW, the temporal resurgence had been noted by my immigrant ears (still learning to speak like the natives), and so the ngrams did not surprise.

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