Tag Archives: when

if and when

Dear word sommelier: I have heard that “if and when” is an unnecessary phrase, and that “if” or “when” individually should be sufficient. I read somewhere that using it is a sign of insecurity in a writer, like taking two swords to a fight. But I still see it, and I have to admit I kind of like it in some places. Can you help me?

If is a common enough word. Very common, indeed. It’s a slender word, like the slip betwixt cup and lip, like the narrow chance of something happening, like the gap between train and platform, or between door and frame. It’s like a ligature of fi that has had a falling out or is dancing a reel. But unlike of, it has not experienced any sound changes; we do not say it “iv” or drop the consonant altogether. This is because it is not a preposition, a substitute for noun inflection, leading into a noun phrase; it is a conjunction, leading into a finite verb phrase, which is a weightier thing. It is small, but so much swings on it – between door and frame indeed: it is a hinge.

When is also a common enough word. It, too, expresses contingency, although it does not necessarily express doubt. It is a bit like the wind – partly because it sounds like “wind” and, if you say the wh the old formal way, it whistles hoarsely as an icy gust out of your mouth, but also partly because there will always be wind, it’s just a question of when: if not now, then soon enough.

Either one introduces a subordinate, and generally either one is sufficient, with a different shade in meaning:

If the rooster crows, get up.

When the rooster crows, get up.

If you make coffee, bring me some.

When you make coffee, bring me some.

But then there is this other phrase, if and when:

If and when the rooster crows, get up.

If and when you make coffee, bring me some.

The wind of when bangs the hinged door of if. Banging doors can be annoying. But sometimes they can also be effective.

There is a small argument to be made in its favour logically:

If the rooster crows, get up. (Does not specify that you must get up at that time, just that you must get up at some point.)

If you make coffee, bring me some. (Does not require you to bring me some right when you make it.)

When the rooster crows, get up. (May imply that you should get up at the time the rooster usually crows, even if it doesn’t this time.)

When you make coffee, bring me some. (May be taken as a general directive without implication that you will be making coffee at any particular point in time.)

If and when the rooster crows, get up. (There is some doubt as to whether the rooster will crow, but get up at the occasion, provided it occurs.)

If and when you make coffee, bring me some. (Your making coffee is not a given, but should you do so, bring me some at the time when you do make it.)

There’s no doubt, though, that the real value of the expression is not its logical quality but its emphatic quality and the implications it carries. It doubly specifies, and thus has the insistence and intensity of reiteration. It means there is some doubt as to the eventuality, and perhaps some impatience regarding it. Here are some possible actual paraphrases:

If and when the rooster crows, get up = That bird sure takes its time about crowing and sometimes I don’t think it even does, but make a point of getting out of bed when it finally does. If it doesn’t, well, whatever.

If and when you make coffee, bring me some = At such time as your royal frickin’ highness chooses to put the pot on, don’t forget to bring me a cup before it’s cold.

So you see it adds some extra huff and puff, not just through the f and wh but through the arms-akimbo attitude it expresses. Use it with care. Sometimes you need two swords, but more often you’ll just hurt yourself.

Those who want a bonus round can use the more emphatic and heavily specified expression when, as, and if. The three contingencies really nail it down, and a triad always packs a punch, in rhetoric as in jokes. It’s so strong it is more likely to come after the main clause rather than ahead of it.

It does have a logical justification; the addition of as means ‘do it in the same time span rather than simply starting at that time’. But what it really means is that there is a possibility the occasion will arise, and the act discussed is strongly and imperatively attached to the occasion. So:

Get up when, as, and if the rooster crows = Provided that dumb bird shoots off its beak, take its crowing as a signal to arise, and be on your feet by the time it’s done its racket.

I would not recommend telling someone to bring you coffee when, as, and if they make some, because you don’t really want them to bring it to you as they’re making it.

The real punch of this phrase, though, is captured in this quote from The Rainmaker, by N. Richard Nash, which is where I first encountered it:

She always wears this little red hat. And last night, Dumbo Hopkinson says to her: “Snookie, you gonna wear that little red hat all your life?” And she giggles and says: “Well, I hope not, Dumbo! I’m gonna give it to some handsome fella – when, as and if!”

In other words, only when, not just on the possibility; only as, not just on the promise (and also not any later); and only if, which means it might not happen at all… take that as a challenge.

So keep that in mind – when, as, and if you ever use it.


I was watching World Cup downhill skiing from Kvitfjell, Norway, today, and I thought, “Huh, Kvitfjell. That must mean ‘white mountain’.”

Which, of course, it did. Now, it’s not that I speak Norwegian, but I do know that fjell means “mountain” (cognate with the English noun fell, now uncommon) and I had good reason to expect that kvit was “white”.

You see, although “white” in modern German is weiss, just as “what” is wass and “which” is welcher (or welche or welches), and in Dutch the three are wit, wat, and welk, meaning that in both languages it’s just w now (pronounced /v/ or, in Dutch, something close to it), I knew that in Icelandic, the three are hvítur, hvað, and hver, with the hv pronounced [kv] or [kf]. And I see, looking it up, that “white” is hvid in Danish and hvit in standard Norwegian (yes, the kvit spelling is a different dialect), though the h seems most likely to go unpronounced.

We should also notice that in many of our modern English wh words, there are Latin equivalents in qu: quid means “what” and quis means “which”, for instance. (Latin for “white” comes from a different root.) This is most notably so with question words (note that question also starts with qu), which we refer to as wh words in English (and in fact linguists will often call the set the “wh- words” even in other languages, though I’d rather think “qu- words” would have a more widespread verity).

This is because they all come from the same Proto-Indo-European roots, which had a /kw/ onset – that oral gesture that may be like sucking or like kissing, but either way involves both front and back of the mouth, with a sort of tension between the lips pushing outward and the tongue sticking at the back. As the various Indo-European languages developed, the /kw/ was preserved in some, and in others became /sw/ (as in Sanskrit svetah “white”, Old Church Slavonic svetu “light”, and Lithuanian sviesti “shine”), or reduced to /k/ (as in various words for “who”: Sanskrit ka, Lithuenian ka, Irish ) or even changed to /p/ or /pw/ (Greek poteros and Welsh pwy for “who”), or – as in Germanic languages – altered to /hw/ and in some cases ultimately reduced to /w/. (And in some Scots English dialects, under the influence of Gaelic phonotactics, the /hw/ has sometimes moved to /f/, as in fit “what” – the voicelessness and labial location are preserved, but the rest is changed.)

This leaves us with two questions particularly relevant to English. First, are white and what and which now /w/ onset words, at least in some versions of English? Second, why do we write them with wh when obviously we say either /w/ or /hw/ but never /wh/?

To look at the first question first: here in Canada, as in much of the United States, you will normally hear them with just /w/. But the odds are pretty good that there’s still a citation form (as linguists call them) with a /hw/. Get someone to say “I saw a wight which saw a white witch” and then have someone ask them to repeat it more clearly, and you have a good chance of hearing the /hw/ on the wh words. For that matter, there are times (say, when addressing an impatient woman briefly) when one might say Which? very clearly so as not to be thought to be saying Witch! And some people will find they are more likely to say /hw/ in some contexts – for instance, Rosemary Tanner (who suggested this exploration) finds that white gets the voiceless onset when referring to snow and freshly washed laundry. At the same time, of course, we have lots of fun with the usual homophony, for instance with Which witch is which? So there’s no question of our not being aware that we usually say it just /w/!

There is, by the way, some question of whether it’s really accurate to say it’s /hw/. Say /h/, as in the start of how. Now say /w/ as in win. Now tack the one onto the other: h-win. Does that seem quite like what you say when you say when? Or maybe a bit too separated? Dollars to doughnuts your lips are already rounded when you start the /h/ sound, in fact. So really it’s a voiceless /w/ (the IPA symbol is /ʍ/, an upside-down w), and it might get some voicing at the end.

But it undoubtedly came from a /hw/, which came from a /kw/. And in fact in Old English it was written hw. So hwat happened? Well, it changed during the Middle English period. Somewhere in the 1200s scribes started using wh, possibly under the influence of some Norman French spellings of some words (that’s how we got our sh and ch spellings for what had up to then been written sc and c). We’re not actually altogether sure why the change was made, in fact.

But it didn’t happen all at once; it was dragged out, and uneven. In fact, the list of different spellings of white in the OED is rather long, starting with the old hwit and moving to such as wit and wyt (yes, at one time we left off the h in spelling) as well as to whit and whyte and so on but also to an assortment of others, such as qwyte, quhyt, and qwyght.

The same pattern holds true for our various wh question words, of course. The interesting case is who, wherein the /w/ has been altogether dropped; it started out as hwa in Old English, but once the sound had moved to be /hwu/, the more natural progression was to /hu/, assimilating the two rounded sounds and keeping the voiceless opener for an onset. Interestingly, this also happened to the Old English hwo, which became hu… and then, in Modern English, how. How do you like that? And who would have thought it, eh? What do you know…