Monday, August 26, 2013

If You Really...

This shouldn’t be news to most adults; what surprised me into writing about it was the comments on the Ozarque blog in December 2004, which show that quite a few literate adults have never thought about it..

(Recap: Ozarque is the author of the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense series of books, which begin with an analysis of exactly why “If you really wanted...” is such an annoying verbal attack. If you’ve not already read these books, please read one of them now.)

The peculiarity of English grammar that makes “If you really wanted [whatever], you would...” or “A person who really wanted [whatever] would...”  obnoxious is known as contrastive stress. By emphasizing “really” in an “If...” sentence, we’re saying “You (or whoever) may have said or even thought you/she/he wanted this, but we know it’s not true.”

What an “If you/he/she really wanted” statement really communicates is, therefore, more than the actual words in the sentence.

“If you really wanted full marks for your term paper, you would have found a way to get it typed.” Not spoken, but heard: “You don’t deserve full marks for the work you did. The reason why you didn’t get the paper professonally typed has nothing to do with circumstances beyond your control, such as that you don’t own a typewriter or computer or printer and can’t afford to rent one or to hire someone who has one of these gadgets; the reason is that you weren’t doing your best work—which is not a reasonable decision about how to use your time and energy and other resources, but a moral failing on your part. If you said you wanted full marks, you were lying. Ultimately the reason why you didn’t try harder to impress me is that you don’t respect me as a person; I’m entitled to hold that against you, and I will.”

“If Piers Morgan really had due respect for the United States and for our Constitution, he wouldn’t presume to spout opinions about it in public, especially opinions that favor efforts to subvert the U.S. Constitution.” True, but not the way of saying it that’s most likely to help Piers Morgan, since when this sentence is spoken what’s heard will also include: “Piers Morgan lacks due respect for the United States and for our Constitution. When he said he had such respect, he was either lying, or reading from a script without thinking about what it meant. Piers Morgan is a public enemy who should be deported.” Right...a lot of people might agree with that statement. But one could understand why Mr. Morgan is likely to tune them out and not correct his mistakes.

“If you really loved me, you wouldn’t even want to stay out so late.” Not spoken, but heard: “You don’t really love me. When you said you did, you were lying. You are a heartless, selfish person who wants to give your family heart attacks from anxiety as they sit at home wondering about your safety. There’s no need to discuss the possibility that your spouse or parent worries too much; even if s/he does, that’s her/his right. You are at fault.”

On the other hand, there’s a similar-looking type of sentence that’s harmless, e.g.:“If you really want to go out for pizza, let’s go.”

Two things about this sentence: (1) it’s in the indicative (present reality) mode rather than the subjunctive (hypothetical) mode, and (2) contrastive stress here suggests, “I don’t care much either way, so if you have a strong preference I don’t mind accommodating you.”

There’s even a variant form of this type of sentence where some emphasis can be put on “really” without doing any harm: “If you really want to go out for pizza, let’s go.”

In this sentence, the contrastive stress suggests, “My preference would be something else, but if you insist I’ll go out for pizza with you.”

This is the type of sentence teachers are likely to use in speeches like “Those who really want top marks for this project will...”

In which case, the implication of the contrastive stress is likely to be spelled out clearly: “...and those who just want a passing grade need only...”

Generally the combination of words like “really” and the subjunctive mode, which is used to describe situations different from present reality, indirectly says “Whatever that ‘if’ clause described is not what really happened.” This statement doesn’t absolutely always imply that someone is at fault. This general category of sentences includes things like “This is only a test. If it had been a real emergency, you would have received further instructions.” However, “If (some person) really wanted, meant, intended, etc.,” nearly always implies “The person said s/he did. The person’s word is not to be relied on,” and this is more likely to lead to entrenched opposition than to accord.