If only

Diana Lind, “The Bright Side of Blight”, op-ed piece in NYT, 1/25/11:

In recent months, this [Philadelphia] neighborhood [Kensington] has been terrorized by a killer who choked and raped his victims in the area’s ubiquitous abandoned houses and vacant lots. If only these deserted places could be charged as accomplices to the so-called Kensington Strangler’s three murders and two assaults, and for aiding and abetting the drug use and prostitution that have caused so many of the neighborhood’s problems. But the empty lots with their discarded furniture and ghetto kudzu and the weather-beaten houses with boarded-up windows won’t be going anywhere soon.

The point at issue is the middle sentence, which is in fact a free-standing if-clause, a protasis (conveying the antecedent) without an apodosis (conveying the consequent). But though it is formally (and historically) a truncation, it doesn’t strike people as incomplete; in fact, it’s a conventionalized optative construction, expressing a wish or hope. (Modern English is almost completely lacking in moods expressed by inflectional morphology, but it’s rich in syntactic constructions expressing the relevant semantics and pragmatics.)

The middle sentence also has only in an unusual position, following the if (in what I’ll call “front position”).

Now to three brief points about this example.

First point: the sense of only in the example. OED3 (August 2010) has a subentry for this use:

[Compare German nur.] As much as, just … Freq. in conditional clauses introduced by if.
Probably a development from the sense ‘no more than’.

with if-clause examples from 1849 through 2001.

Only here generally patterns with exclusive just (and older, now archaic but), as in

(1) If you had only/just/but asked, I would have explained.

The protasis in such examples makes no commitment to veridicality, and therefore is especially comfortable with formally and semantically counterfactual conditionals.

Second point: there are three positions for optative exclusive adverbials:

Aux-VP position, as in (1); most of the OED’s cites are of this type, for instance:

(2) 1875    B. Jowett tr. Plato Dialogues (ed. 2) III. 193   He is coming‥if you will only wait. [note postponed protasis]

(3) 2001    N.Y. Times 11 Nov. iv. 2/4   Now, if we could only find a way to roust our cat from the sofa.

Subject-VP position, as in this variant of (1):

(4) If you only/just/but had asked, I would have explained.

And front position, as in the Diana Lind quote and this OED cite:

(5) 1849    T. B. Macaulay Hist. Eng. II. ix. 410   [They] would willingly join to effect it, if only they could obtain the help of such a force‥as might secure those who should rise in arms.

Front position is available only for only:

(6) If only/*just/*but you had asked, I would have explained.

Third point: the conventionalized protasis-only construction is available for all the exclusive adverbials and all three positions. In fact, the OED‘s three most recent cites (1955, 1982, and 2001 — (3) above) are protasis-only examples. It’s the going thing.

[A note: truncated conditionals can be deployed strategically, in circumstances where the apodosis can be inferred in context. So things like

If you wouldn’t mind passing the salt …

(usually with a suspensive rather than falling final intonation) can serve as polite requests. (Such uses provide a way for the morphosyntax of conditionals to become conventionalized in imperatives, as has happened in many languages.)

But protasis-only examples like the ones above have become conventionalized in optative uses, so that contextual inference is no longer required (it’s “short-circuited”, in John Searle’s felicitous metaphor). Add this to the list of nonce truncations that have become conventionalized.]

[Another note: if and only can of course combine, in the order only if (“I’ll do it only if you ask me”), but the meaning is quite different from that of if only. Only if falls in with things like only because (“I did it only because you asked me to”) and only that (“I know only that I have to do it”), whereas if only falls in with the other types with clause-internal only.]

[A bibliographic note: the estimable Chris Potts has unearthed one relevant publication —

Rifkin, Jay I. 2000. If only ‘if only’ were ‘if’ plus ‘only’. Chicago Linguistics Society 36:369-383.

(which I haven’t yet consulted) and notes that Maria Biezma is finishing a U.Mass. dissertation that has a chapter on the subject, in which she “disagrees with Rifkin on almost all important points”. So that there’s clearly more to be said on the topic.]

One Response to “If only”

  1. A little more on optative if … only « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] my brief posting on optative if … only, in examples like If only you had asked, I would have explained. If you […]

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