'Only and only if'

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John Parkinson, "Boehner on Keystone Pipeline: 'President is Selling Out American Jobs for Politics'", ABC News, 118/2012:

"President Obama is destroying tens of thousands of American jobs and shipping American energy security to the Chinese.  There's really just no other way to put it," Boehner, R-Ohio, said. "The president was given the authority to block this project only and only if he believes it's not in the national interest of the United States. Is it not in the national interest to create tens of thousands of jobs here in America with private investment?  Is it not in the national interest to get energy resources from an ally like Canada, as opposed to some countries in the Middle East?"

I believe that this is a word-interchange error for "if and only if". The phrasal pattern "A only and only if B" doesn't seem to make sense, except as a way to say "A is the only possibility, and [it applies] only if B" — which is surely not what he meant here.

However, Speaker Boehner is by no means the first person to make this swap. A search of Google Books turns up quite a few examples that have made it into print, e.g.

In order for a FCR to be valid, the CFRB that defines it must be consistent. A CFRB is said to be consistent only and only if it contains one rule for each linguistic term defined in the antecedent concept. [Rudolf Seising, Views on Fuzzy Sets and Systems from Different Perspectives, 2009]

The community cl which submits the highest bid will win the auction only and only if bcl > repcl. [Dirk Neumann et al., Economic Models and Algorithms for Distributed Systems, 2010]

Strong type/type reduction for the predicate 'gene' will be satisfied only and only if we can say that 'a given gene' is 'a given DNA sequence' … [Anne Fagot-Largeault et al., Eds., The Influence of Genetics on Contemporary Thinking, 2007]

I notice that all three of the examples that I've chosen happen to come from Springer publications — perhaps there's an influential copy editor at Springer who has elevated this phrasing from a speech error to a point of principle?

Or maybe "only and only if" actually means something in these cases after all, and I'm just too jet lagged to see it…


  1. James said,

    January 19, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

    I guess Boehner could mean, the President was given the authority to block this project only, and only if he believes…
    It makes sense to say that — it's grammatical and it means something. It's hard to see why Boehner would say it, I admit. But it's also hard to see why he would say that the President was given the authority to block the project if and only if he believes… The important point, the one Boehner wants to emphasize, is the only if direction.

    The examples you found in Google Books are much more obviously swaps of 'only' for 'if'. Surely they are typos!

  2. r said,

    January 19, 2012 @ 12:44 pm

    Seems like a grammar error to me. Just remove the "and only if" to hear it. It'll parse correctly if you take it to be "(only and only) if" rather than "(only) and (only if)", but then it's pretty meaningless.

  3. rpsms said,

    January 19, 2012 @ 12:46 pm

    Suppose that the first "only" refers to a minimal threshold for classification which does not grant or specify other features within the set, and "only if" is the specification for classification.

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 19, 2012 @ 1:06 pm

    @James: Your point that Boehner meant the "only" direction raises the possibility that this was his (or a reporter's?) error for "only, only if", with repetition for emphasis or as a slight stumble.

  5. Mr Fnortner said,

    January 19, 2012 @ 1:36 pm

    The likelihood of this being a word-interchange seems quite high, yet perhaps it's a bungled version of "if and when" such that the speaker intended "only when and only if".

  6. Andy Averill said,

    January 19, 2012 @ 2:32 pm

    If this is a transcript of spoken remarks, it could just be the old trick of using and as a sort of stutter while you're sorting out where to go next in the sentence. In which case the second only is just for insurance, in case he couldn't remember if he already said it.

  7. Andy Averill said,

    January 19, 2012 @ 2:41 pm

    &PS in that first quote from Springer Verlag, shouldn't "a FCR" be "an FCR"? Unless we're meant to pronounce the acronym as a word, which seems unlikely in this case…

  8. Yuval said,

    January 19, 2012 @ 2:45 pm

    It seems to me that even if "if and only if" was meant here, the "if" part is irrelevant for Boehner's point. So we can let him off the hook.

  9. GeorgeW said,

    January 19, 2012 @ 3:21 pm

    I think it is a word swap, but 'if and only if" seems nonsensical to me as well. Is the president ever authorized to block projects contrary to "the national interest of the United States?"

  10. Ross Presser said,

    January 19, 2012 @ 4:12 pm

    re: "a FCR" — probably the acronym here, whatever it stands for, is meant to be pronounced fully — as if you were to say "a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent" when you see "a FBI agent" on the page.

  11. Jonathan D said,

    January 19, 2012 @ 6:55 pm

    I would guess that Springer publishes a relatively large proportion of the texts using the phrase "if and only if", and so such errors are more likely to show up there.

  12. Ralph Hickok said,

    January 19, 2012 @ 8:31 pm

    @Andy Averill: I'm a part-time copyeditor for a scholarly journal where the style rule is that "a" or "an" is used as if the acronym were spelled out.

  13. Dan H said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 5:12 am

    I think it is a word swap, but 'if and only if" seems nonsensical to me as well. Is the president ever authorized to block projects contrary to "the national interest of the United States?"

    Presumably there could be projects that were not contrary to the national interests of the United States which the President may wish to block for other reasons. I could be wrong, but I suspect that "national interests" is not so broadly defined as to mean "anything that could conceivably be good for somebody who lives in that nation."

    Lots of things may be bad for individual Americans but not so bad for America as a whole that they would be considered "not in the national interest." Political rhetoric aside, this is a good example: "creating thousands of jobs" is not an issue of the national interest, it's an issue of employment and energy policy.

  14. GeorgeW said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 6:10 am

    @Dan H: "Presumably there could be projects that were not contrary to the national interests of the United States which the President may wish to block for other reasons."

    But doesn't if-and-only-if restrict the decision to a in-or-contrary-to-the-national-interest test?

  15. Pete said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 6:31 am

    @Dan H/GeorgeW: Yes, in formal logic, "if and only if" means the two things are essentially the same thing. For example a number is even if and only if it's divisible by 2 without remainder, meaning that any number divisble by 2 is even, and any even number is divisble by two.

    So if "if and only if" was intended, then it would mean that the "contrary to the national interest" condition is the only reason the president would block a project, and furthermore, that he would have to block all projects that were contrary to the national interest.

    In other words the "authority" was also a duty, which is probably an over-literal interpretation. So probably Speaker Boehner really just meant "only if" with emphasis on "only". the terminology of formal logic rarely means the same thing when used in normal language.

    But I have to say I'm surprised to see this type of error in textbooks of mathematics/formal logic. In that field if and only if is extremely common – so common, in fact that it's often abbreviated to iff [sic, with a double F].

  16. Nightstallion said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 7:09 am

    I'm a mathematician and I'm also surprised that this type of error actually appears in textbooks – I haven't yet encountered it anywhere.

  17. Brian said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 8:49 am

    It's not a reporter's transcription error. I have encountered Boehner's remark only in audio form, and I remember hearing the pertinent part exactly as transcribed here. It's the peril of learning to speak in sound bites: If you compress your message into one easily quotable nugget, but you muff the presentation, your speech might not provide another dense passage that the media can quote. "Do-overs!"

  18. Adrian said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 9:07 am

    @Andy @Ross @Ralph FCR and FBI aren't acronyms. So I'm not really sure what Ralph means.

  19. David Walker said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 1:34 pm

    I come from a mathematical background, and I read both your headline and the quote as "if and only if" the first time. "Only and only if" makes no sense.

  20. Ben Hemmens said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 2:47 pm

    unless and until, cease and desist, terms and conditions, invalid and of no effect, null and void, fit and proper, will and testament, altered or amended, valid and correct, defective or damaged, etc. etc.

    English legal language has a great love of these doubled-up expressions, and it has probably entered the subconscious of many people in public life that sounding serious and important involves a good sprinkling of them; it's probably this urge that results in garbled versions like this getting spoken. It fulfils its rhythmic and emphatic role even if it doesn't make sense on paper.

    The first reason advanced for this is that of course England was ruled by French-speakers for centuries, so terms of French and English origins got doubled up. And the other is the tendency of common law systems to allow a lot of redefinition and reinterpretation of terms, so a habit of belt-and-braces language grew up. Like many habits, it developed a life of its own.

    Translating contractual or official texts, as I do sometimes, it's amusing to see how much of this pompous-sounding guff bubbles up from the depths. Having no legal training, the temptation to slap it in just to sound good – like the Samuel L. Jackson character's Bible quotes in Pulp Fiction is strong. (Being, hopefully, professional, I then try to research which bits of it actually make sense to use – and the result in translations from German code-civil language is: less of it than would probably appear in the equivalent English document. One can't help suspecting that quite a bit of this redundancy might be legally superfluous).

  21. Rube said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 3:42 pm

    @Ben Hemmens –there can't be much doubt that quite a bit of it is superfluous. However, it takes a lot of courage to leave it out of a document that's supposed to have legal effect, because (any this is the stuff of lawyer nightmares) SUPPOSE IT TURNS OUT IT ACTUALLY DID MEAN SOMETHING.

    Fear is what keeps these kinds of doublets in the law.

  22. Michael Cargal said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 5:28 pm

    It seems to be common. Google returns 43 million hits for "only and only if". Many of these are of the form "It's best to eat sweets in the evening only, and only if you have some calories left over at the end of that day," but most I looked at were of the construction you are talking about here, as in "The man is ready to possess something only and only if he believes he CAN do it and achieve success." (Not that this last example has much real meaning in it.)

  23. Ondrej Tichy said,

    January 22, 2012 @ 9:04 pm

    Couldn't this be just a case of emphasis? Something like "only and (I say) ONLY if…"
    This would also probably agree with what Ben Hemmens said about legal language.

  24. Adrian said,

    January 25, 2012 @ 7:12 am

    @Michael Corgal That Google hit count needs to be taken cum grano salis. If you go through the pages of hits you'll discover that Google can only manage to list *497* examples, which is rather fewer than 43 million. 497 is probably wrong, 43 million is definitely wrong. The correct figure is: who knows? Google probably could tell us, but it chooses to mislead us and leave us none the wiser.

    Any road up, "only and only if" is an error, and a good example of the language phenomenon whereby if something sounds right to someone it trumps the actual lack of meaning in the expression.

  25. Chris said,

    January 25, 2012 @ 9:26 am

    In computer science articles "iif" (two letter i's) is often used to mean if and only if. Not sure if it is only in that field.

    [(myl) Also in math and logic. The OED's earlier citation is from 1955:

    1955 J. L. Kelley Gen. Topol. vii. 232 F is equicontinuous at x iff there is a neighborhood of x whose image under every member of F is small.


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