A little more on optative if … only

In my brief posting on optative if … only, in examples like

If only you had asked, I would have explained.
If you only had asked, …
If you had only asked, …

I focused on the truncated (protasis-only) versions of such examples and how they have become conventionalized as free-standing optatives. But I merely asserted that all the examples, truncated or not, were in fact optatives, distinct from ordinary conditionals with only in them. That assertion — which amounts to a claim that these sentences have a special sense or use of only in them (as distinguished in the OED) — could use some defense.

Just noting that only can be used in a special way is not in itself an argument, since special uses can easily arise from implicature. Consider a different kind of example with only:

(1) I only winced a bit.

and note that it could be understood as a simple exclusion: ‘The only thing I did was wince a bit, I didn’t do anything other than wince a bit’ (that is, I didn’t sing or dance or growl like a bear or …). Or as expressing a limit on a scale: ‘On a scale of reactions to some event, I did no more than wince a bit’ (that is, I didn’t cry out in pain, shriek, or anything more extreme); this is a more specific understanding (roughly, ‘no more than’) than simple exclusion, an understanding that arises in contexts where a scale is available.

Should we say that (1) is ambiguous between simple exclusion and scalar limit? Perhaps not, since the scalar-limit understanding can be seen as arising from conversational implicature. Or maybe that understanding is a matter of conventional implicature, associated with the lexical item only — in which case, we’re in a territory somewhere between a single meaning for only and ambiguity.

Now go on to

(2) If I had only sung, I’d have won the talent competition.

Only here can be understood as a simple exclusion — ‘if I had done nothing other than sing’ (if I hadn’t also tried to tap-dance and play the accordion, or whatever) — or as an optative, something along the lines of ‘if I had sung, which I wish I had’. These are strikingly different understandings — in the first, I sang, in the second I didn’t — a fact that makes it plausible to say that only has acquired a distinct optative sense or use.

Still, there was a historical chain of sense developments that got from the first understanding to the second, and if that can be reconstructed (something I don’t have the training or resources to do), someone might claim that this chain survives synchronically, as a chain of implicatures uniting the two apparently very different uses of only.

There’s at least one further possible line of evidence in the matter, namely the cooccurrence of the two uses — the sort of reasoning that we use in arguing that “supportive” do (“Did you sing?”) and “action” do (“You did it”) are distinct, because they can cooccur in “Did you do it?” and the like. Which brings us to

(3) If only I had only sung!

conveying a wish (the first only is optative) that I had done nothing other than sing (the second only is exclusive).

Finally, there’s the fact that (like supportive and action do) optative and exclusive only have somewhat different syntax, as I noted in my earlier posting: optative only can occur in “front position”, as in

(4) If only I had sung, I’d have won the talent competition.

but exclusive only cannot; (4) paraphrases only one of the understandings of (2).

So, tentatively, I’m sticking to the position that optative and exclusive only are distinct.

One Response to “A little more on optative if … only

  1. Mar Rojo Says:

    If only I had listened to you. (optative)
    If I had only listened to you. (Could be optative or exclusive)

    Am I right?

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