The baseball conditional in the Zombie Mohammed case

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Last Wednesday, the judge in the "Zombie Mohammed" case dismissed a charge of harassment against Talaag Elbayomy for attacking Ernest Perce V during a Halloween parade in Mechanicsburg PA. Mr. Pence, a member of the Parading Atheists of Central PA, was costumed and labelled as "Zombie Mohammed", marching next to a "Zombie Pope" who was not attacked. There's been an extensive discussion of this case over at The Volokh Conspiracy (here, here, and here).

Mr. Perce apparently recorded the hearing (without permission from the judge, whose name is Mark Martin) and posted it on YouTube. Eugene Volokh linked to the recording and noted:

Commenters have queried whether the judge is actually Muslim; I think that at 31:25 in this audio he does expressly say “I’m a Muslim, I find it very offensive,” and not in a context where a “not” seems to be lost or somehow implied; but some commenters disagree, partly based on other passages in the audio — if you’re interested, check out the discussion in the comment thread. Naturally, I think the judge’s condemnation of the victim is out of place (and casts doubt on the judge’s objectivity in his decision about the defendant) whether or not the judge is a Muslim. [NOTE: The judge, in the message below, says he is not a Muslim.]

The question at issue here is not whether the charges against Mr. Elbayomy should or should not have been dismissed, nor whether the lecture that Judge Martin directed against Mr. Perce was or was not appropriate. What I hope to explain is why, if Judge Martin is not in fact a Muslim (apparently he's a Lutheran), he seems to have said "I'm a Muslim".

Here's the passage in question:

They find it very, very, very offensive –
I'm a Muslim, I find it offensive.

Couldn't be clearer, right? The judge just said he's a Muslim. But then later he claims to be a Lutheran! What's going on?

As it happens, we discussed this construction almost five years ago ("Baseball conditionals",  5/23/2007). Barbara Partee contributed the initial example and the analysis:

Here's an example of the now-common way of expressing counterfactual conditionals among baseball players and managers that's so extreme I had to read it twice before catching on that it was a counterfactual; the preceding sentence and the play-by-play show that it must be, and it's grammatically consistent with other slightly less extreme examples I encounter almost daily.

(Structure: Clause1, clause 2. — both plain indicatives. Interpretation: if clause 1 had been the case, clause 2 would have been the case.) Oh, I think what makes this one a little unusual is that the first clause is in the past tense. I think usually they're both present tense.

"He could have been a little rusty early on, and then the inning he gave up four runs I think he kind of lost his composure a little bit," Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said. "He just did a little damage control in that situation, we're OK." (AP Recap of Toronto 6, Baltimore 4, game of May 22, David Ginsburg, AP Sports Writer)

In the Volokh comments section, a couple of commenters make the same point, e.g.

I do not think the judge actually said he is a Muslim.

Rather, he was using some kind of subjunctive “[If] I’m a Muslim, I find that offensive.” Compare the common “sports subjunctive.” E.g., “He catches that pass, Steelers win the game, Steelers go to the playoffs, I’m a Steelers fan, I’m going crazy” spoken by a sports announcer who is not a Steelers fan after the receiver dropped the pass.

By "subjunctive", I think that the commenter really means "counterfactual".

But maybe we should adopt the other half of his terminological suggestion (which is well established on the web) and call this the "sports conditional".

Update — a similar construction, which also underlines a possible relationship to pseudo-Q&A sequences, is in this famous scene from The Office:

You give me a gift? Bam! Thank You note. You invite me somewhere? Pow! RSVP. You do me a favor? Wham! Favor returned. Do not test my politeness.


  1. Stephen C. Carlson said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 11:33 pm

    I think the judge said, "I'm not Muslim," but I wonder what your spectrograms have to say.

  2. Paul Kay said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 12:08 am

    Distantly related to this is the "If you're x, P(x)" pseudo-conditional, which I think also started in sports reporting. "If you're the Saints' coach, you can't feel good about that" (cleaned up slightly from the web). Again, "If you're George Bush or Dick Cheney, you are going to be FURIOUS at McCain tonight." I say pseudo-conditional because I don't think the speaker means, for example, 'If you were the Saints' coach you couldn't feel good about that', which what is a true counterfactual conditional would mean. I think the meaning is more of a slightly hedged assertion; more like, 'I don't suppose the Saints coach can be feeling good about that.' In this case, despite the form, the meaning is not conditional. The speaker does not intend to make a statement about what it would be like in the (counterfactual) world in which the addressee was the Saints' coach or Bush or Cheney. The speaker is not interested in making a statement about the addressee at all.

  3. mike said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 12:49 am

    I don't watch enough sports for this construct to be familiar to me from that genre of rhetoric, but I sure do recognize it. By adding a little conversational decoration, the construct seems a little less odd than it does in text on the page. For example:

    So, I, like, dress up and go to the bank and ask them for a loan. Ok? And of course, _then_ they say yes.

    Or, you know, something similar. Same notion of using what looks like a straight indicative to indicate a counterfactual. No sports.Tho I do like the name "sports conditional."

  4. L'Esprit de l'Escalier said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 12:52 am

    See also "There Is No Communist Party, There Is No New China", posted on Language Log at

  5. Mark F. said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 8:47 am

    Conversations about sporting events tend to have a high rate of counterfactual conditionals, so it makes sense that a particular way of expressing them would be noticed there, and it's also plausible that novel ways of expressing them would arise there.

    [(myl) Agreed, except that I don't think there's anything novel about the construction. Conditionals expressed simply as two clauses with no explicit indication of their conditional relationship have been common for a long time, though the meaning is often generic or hypothetical-future rather than strictly counterfactual.]

  6. Nathanael said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 9:03 am

    I've listened to the audio — or at least one version of it on Youtube — at least a half dozen times, and to my ears it sounds equally likely the judge said, "I'm not Muslim, I find it offensive", as in "I'M not Muslim, and even *I* find it offensive."

    Or the baseball conditional also works. Either way, it's hard to reconcile a declarative "I'm a Muslim" assertion with the rest of the judge's comments (he, e.g., refers to Muslims in the third person), or his assertion elsewhere that he's Lutheran.

  7. Erik said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 9:08 am

    Every semester when I teach my undergraduate math/logic course for informatics students, the first extra credit problem on the first homework assignment is to come up with a sentence like one of these. (Or close to it. What I actually ask for is a a sentence of the form "P and Q" whose meaning is essentially the same as "If P, then Q.") Typically, if anyone succeeds at all, it's' by coming up with an imperative of some sort (e.g., "Tell me what you eat, and I'll tell you what you are."). It's nice to have a name to give to them now, and a few examples of similar statements that don't involve imperatives.

  8. Dick Margulis said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 9:34 am

    I'm Pence, I'm pissed you called me Perce. I'm Perce, I'm pissed you called me Pence. I'm neither, meh.

    [(myl) You're Perce, at least according to the news stories. (And by "you" I mean "he"). Typo now fixed.]

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 10:04 am

    I've read most of Robert B. Parker's detective novels and I don't listen to much sports announcing, so I think of this as the thug counterfactual. You disagree, tell Hawk about it.

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 10:09 am

    Or "thug conditional".

  11. George Grady said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 10:39 am

    To me, it sound's like he's saying "I'm a muslim, I'd find it offensive." It just sounds a bit "stoppy" between the "I" and the "f" in "find".

  12. Adrian said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 11:32 am

    The first example that popped in my head was "Don't ask, don't get." Does that count?

  13. Hamish said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 1:15 pm

    Isn't this akin to GKP's opener a short while ago?

  14. Q. Pheevr said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 1:41 pm

    I read "I'm a Muslim," I listen to the recording, I hear "I'm a Muslim." I read "I'm not Muslim," I listen to the recording, I hear "I'm not Muslim."

    Clearly, if we want to know what the judge really said, we must turn to the official court transcript, not some audio recording. I mean, who are you gonna believe, the court reporter or your lying ears?

  15. Andrew W said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 1:41 pm

    To do the paratactic conditional, with two declaratives, judging from introspection I need a very specific intonation pattern: a topic/rise-fall/B-accent on the first clause and a focus/fall/A-accent on the second clause. And the focus would need to be marked on the whole second clause (i.e. the fall would happen phrase-finally), not a part of it. These are OK (where \ marks a fall and / a rise):

    – I'm a \Mus/lim, I find it of\fensive.- He makes that \/pass, they win the \game. (or …\makes that /pass…)

    That doesn't sound (to me) like what Judge Martin is using. This sounds more like:

    – \I'm a \Mus/lim, \I find it offensive.

    I have difficulty interpreting this as a paratactic conditional. If the second clause contained a 'would', it works better:

    – \I'm a \Mus/lim, \I'd find it offensive. (cp. If \I were a Mus/lim, \I'd find it offensive.)

    And like George Grady, I can hear, if I strain, a hint of a 'd' between "I" and "find".

  16. Mark F. said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 2:56 pm

    MYL – Well, it might have been novel at some point in the past. But really I should have stuck with the point I originally meant to make, which is that people associate it with sports because that's where they hear a lot of counterfactual conditionals, and secondarily because there's an awful lot of recorded extemporaneous sports speech, so it's easy to document examples. The novelty idea just then occurred to me as a possibility. I have the sense that new ways of expressing something come up when you're expressing it a lot.

  17. Ted said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 6:00 pm

    Erik: You snooze, you lose.

  18. John said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 8:04 pm

    Am I the only native English speaker who thinks these "baseball conditionals" sound really odd and ungrammatical when the premise is contrary-to-fact?

    I'm completely OK with

    1. You snooze, you loose. ("If you snooze, then you will lose.")

    I'm also OK with the Elomore Leonard quote

    2. "What're you having, conch? You ever see it they take it out of the shell? You wouldn't eat it."

    (Which I guess could be called counterfactual since presumably the addressee has never, in fact, seen a conch being taken out of a shell.)

    But the "I'm a Muslim, I'm offended" think throws me for a loop. I think the difference for me is that the speaker here *knows* that he's neither Muslim nor will probably ever become one, whereas in 1. and 2. the premiss is understood to at least be possible. I think that in my personal grammar, I could never construe two conjoined clauses "X Y" as "if X then Y" in the case where X expresses a proposition that the speaker *knows* is false and unfulfillable.

    (Also, I rarely listen to American sports broadcasts, and my brain resists the correct interpretation of that Orioles manager quote, too.)

  19. DavidP said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 10:03 pm

    Ain't momma happy, ain't nobody happy.

  20. Peter said,

    February 28, 2012 @ 1:17 am

    The Sarah Michelle Gellar show Ringer had a line that was in the "previous scenes" at the beginning of last week's episode, where she said "Bodaway [a notorious gangster] wants me dead, I'm dead."

  21. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    February 28, 2012 @ 11:57 am

    Well, I'm a so-called "non-native speaker", so maybe my intuition is off (and I can't decide for myself what the jugge actually said); but judging from the surrounding material, the "sports counterfactual" would sound unexpectedly informal.

  22. Catanea said,

    February 28, 2012 @ 12:21 pm

    I probably haven't a metaphorical leg to stand on, but I'd like to call this the "Spartacus conditional"… Perhaps it doesn't really meet the case.

  23. You use the present tense, you persuade people to save money | English Teaching Daily said,

    March 1, 2012 @ 10:50 pm

    […] Sedivy says, “We've had some discussion lately about the sports subjunctive/baseball conditional/bare paratactic conditional. I'm going to stay out of any naming […]

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