Friday, May 16, 2014

The Virtue of "If"

The previous blog post (“In a Manner of Speaking”) noted the confusion that can arise because the word “more” can be used as a modifier of quantity or of quality. What about its opposite, “less”?
“Less” has problems, but none of its own making. The problems are caused by other words. There’s its almighty conflict with “fewer.” Think of those benighted souls who grind their teeth when they approach a supermarket checkout counter with a sign reading, “Ten Items or Less.” Those are people who believe in a rule that goes like this (according to Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage):

fewer refers to number among things that are counted, and less refers to quantity or amount among things that are measured.
It is a rule that is “simple enough and easy enough to follow,” says the Dictionary. It does have one fault: “it is not accurate for all usage.” And the Dictionary proceeds to offer a zillion (I exaggerate) examples of writers “violating” what is in reality a non-rule.

The other word that creates a problem for “less” is “than.” They so often come as a pair, and, like “more,” the pair can involve quantity or quality. The “less than” quantity usage should not be a problem (unless you refuse to get on the check-out line mentioned above). But as for the quality issue, consider this example of a favorite usage of newspaper editorial writers:

Mr. Jones was less than honest in his remarks about his role in the affair.
Er. . . Let’s see: if being honest is an all-or-nothing thing, then being “less than” honest is really to be what? “Not honest”? “Dishonest”?

“Less than honest”; “less than frank”; “less than forthcoming” and the rest of those editorial constructions are prime examples of weaseling, seeming to be stating something, while allowing oneself to slither away from full responsibility for one’s words (“No. I never used the word “dishonest”).

Weasel words are all over the place. Consider the following Staples ad:

15% OFF

your entire in-store purchase.*

Exclusions apply.*

Weasels are not only words—look at that wonderful asterisk, which morphs the ad into “Everything—but not everything.”

One could go on and on about weasels (political ones, critical ones, business ones, etc.--whole books have been written on the subject) especially about the prime weasel de nos jours—the non-apology apology. Such as the one that begins, “If anyone was offended . . . .”

So, to avoid filling a book, let's end here with a focus on that contender for number one weasel: “if,” and as usual we turn to Shakespeare:

As You Like It (Act V, Scene 4)

JAQUES. But, for the seventh cause: how did you find the quarrel on the seventh cause?
TOUCHSTONE. Upon a lie seven times removed- bear your body more seeming, Audrey- as thus, sir. I did dislike the cut of a certain courtier's beard; he sent me word, if I said his beard was not cut well, he was in the mind it was. This is call'd the Retort Courteous. If I sent him word again it was not well cut, he would send me word he cut it to please himself. This is call'd the Quip Modest. If again it was not well cut, he disabled my judgment. This is call'd the Reply Churlish. If again it was not well cut, he would answer I spake not true. This is call'd the Reproof Valiant. If again it was not well cut, he would say I lie. This is call'd the Countercheck Quarrelsome. And so to the Lie Circumstantial and the Lie Direct.
JAQUES. And how oft did you say his beard was not well cut?
TOUCHSTONE. I durst go no further than the Lie Circumstantial, nor he durst not give me the Lie Direct; and so we measur'd swords and parted.
JAQUES. Can you nominate in order now the degrees of the lie?
TOUCHSTONE. O, sir, we quarrel in print by the book, as you have books for good manners. I will name you the degrees. The first, the Retort Courteous; the second, the Quip Modest; the third, the Reply Churlish; the fourth, the Reproof Valiant; the fifth, the Countercheck Quarrelsome; the sixth, the Lie with Circumstance; the seventh, the Lie Direct. All these you may avoid but the Lie Direct; and you may avoid that too with an If. I knew when seven justices could not take up a quarrel; but when the parties were met themselves, one of them thought but of an If, as: 'If you said so, then I said so.' And they shook hands, and swore brothers. Your If is the only peace-maker; much virtue in If.
“Much virtue in If”--especially when it's time to weasel away.


Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage is published by Merriam-Webster


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