If and When

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Sometimes people will be unsure of something they think might happen. They will then say "if and when it happens, we need to be prepared" or some such thing. I have never understood what this is supposed to mean. If they just said, "when it happens...", then they would have been assuming that it would happen, when it might not happen. My guess is that somehow, to avoid that impression, someone started saying "if and when...", and then they were sure to have covered all their bases. The only problem with this is that you can do that simply by saying "if it happens...", because that allows for both possibilities -- its happening and its not happening. So were the people who first started using this odd conjunction simply unaware of that?

What's worse is that they made it a conjunction rather than a disjunction. If they thought of 'if' and 'when' as two distinct possible introductory connectives, then they should have said "if or when...", but that's not what people say. What is 'if and when' even supposed to mean, then? I think it just means the same thing as 'if'. I think it also means the same thing as 'if or when'. It's a strange sort of redundancy, though, because it's not analyzable in terms of its components as 'if or when' would be (though that's redundant also, just a more easily analyzable redundancy). So what's going on here? When annoying expressions are as commonly used as this one, it's a great relief when someone can explain them in a way that makes them much less annoying, but no one's ever done that with this one. Is there something I'm missing?


I hear it mostly during political rhetoric. They don't want to appear weak on a position but they don't want to make such a sure statement that might bite them later. So it's almost like a positive if statement. Sort of like saying "this is an if because no one knows for sure...but it will happen because I warned you--but if it doesn't, we got by lucky."

It's a response to someone who proposes an immediate solution to a potential problem.

The "if" casts doubt on whether the problem will ever take place.
The "when" insists that the problem should not be solved preemptively, but dealt with after it has happened.

So for example -
Potential Problem & Solution: "This computer is going to stop working soon. We need to buy another one now".
Response: "If and when the computer breaks, we will buy another one"

I think Mark is basically right, but I'm pretty sure it generalizes well beyond possible problems.

I think that "if" carries a pragmatic implicature in the relative unlikeliness of the antecedent. Including the "and when" may be a way to cancel that implicature.

try this:

if it happens, i need to do something about it.

i won't bother doing that thing i need to do until it actually happens, so i'll also say that i will do this thing i need to do when it happens.

therefore: if and when...

Seems to me that what would be more appropriate, given the post and the comments is a simple "If...then" construct. This allows for the uncertainty (the "if") part, and also denotes the fact that the action (or whatever would be stated with regard to the event that might happen) would follow the actual event.

In other words, instead of "If and when the computer breaks, we'll buy a new one", one can simply say, "If the computer breaks, we'll buy a new one." Doesn't that simplify it and make it more grammatically understandable?

steve :)

Sorry about jumping into this discussion late. Unlike the author I find the phrase "if it happens that...." to be a stylistically weak, and I think the author is just being a little prudish. The idiomatic phrase "if and when" can convey a positive feeling, as though the writer is hoping that the event will take place.

Here is an example of a sentence that conveys that of longing from a letter I wrote today:

"I hope your trip to Osaka went well? IF AND WHEN I visit Japan, I would also like to visit Osaka."

Compare with: "...If it happens that I visit Japan, I would also like to visit Osaka." This sounds as though you don't care about whether you visit Osaka or not. Please e-mail me so I can read any further discussions on this matter. (narutolost [at] gmail [dot] com)

I can't fathom why you think I'd prefer "if it happens that I visit Japan" to "If I visit Japan". The latter is clearly stylistically superior to either "if it happens that...", just as it is superior to "if and when I visit Japan" in terms of coherence. In fact, nothing in my post implies anything remotely like what you accused me of claiming.

There are plenty of ways to convey hope that an event will take place without being semantically incoherent. I know what people are trying to convey when they do this, but this particular combination of words has never made sense to me as a good way to do that.

its vs. it's -- Mr. Pierce wrote: "its happening and its not happening". I believe Mr. Pierce meant "it's happening and it's not happening" or "it is happening and it is not happening." The word "its" signifies possession. "It's" is the contracted form of "it is". (Yes, here I chose the period outside of the quotation mark.)

Nope, I didn't mean what you said. I meant exactly what I said. The word "its" with no apostrophe is a possessive. One possibility is that event's happening, and the other is the event's not happening. The possessive form is properly used in formal written English in such a scenario, even though it's becoming less standard to do it that way, and often people will say instead "it happening and it not happening", which makes less sense from the inner logic of the grammar (see Jonathan Bennett's explanation why) but will eventually overtake the historically-correct grammar.

Period inside and outside quotation marks is basically a U.S. vs. U.K. thing (with other English-speaking locations following one or the other, usually according to historical connections with one or the other). I think the U.K. way makes more sense.

I know this thread is years old, but I am behind you 100%, Jeremy (not 110%, of course). "If and when" is one of the stupidest language constructs I've ever heard -- and every time I DO hear it, I want to scream. The "justifications" and "explanations" you got here are useless, erroneous, sad and semantically ignorant. Hold your head high, knowing that you are right and most of these people are wrong. No matter how you try to justify it, "if and when" is illogical and paradoxical. Stop saying it!

Not only in English, we have this strange "jos ja kun" also in Finnish. I hate bad language in formal writings! Sorry my bad English, I'm not a native :)

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