The Grammarphobia Blog

No ifs, ands, or buts

Q: After devouring Origins of the Specious in two sittings, I have a question: On page 162, you use the expression “no ifs, ands, or buts.” Are you OK with this? Has it replaced “no ifs, ans, or buts” in the segment of the grammarphile community that doesn’t have a stick up its you-know-what?

A: The common expression is indeed “No ifs, ands, or buts.” However, you may wonder what “and” is doing there. As it happens, “and” is there for a reason.

The original expression was “ifs and ands” (sometimes “ifs or ands”) when it showed up in print in the early 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

At the time, the word “and” was often used in a conditional sense, and its meaning, the OED says, was “if; suppose that, provided that, on condition that.”

This use of the conditional “and” dates back to about 1225 in recorded English. So, a phrase like “and it please your grace” would mean “if it please your grace.”

When the expression “ifs and ands” came along in the 1500s, it essentially meant “ifs and ifs.”

The first recorded use is from Sir Thomas More’s unfinished work The History of Kyng Richard the Third, which More wrote about 1513.

In a particularly dramatic passage, the mad King Richard pulls up a sleeve to display his withered arm (a birth defect) and claims the deformity is recent – the result of sorcery and treason.

The Lord Chamberlain answers, “Certainly my lorde if they have so heinously done, thei be worthy heinous punishment.”

To which Richard flies into a rage: “Thou servest me, I wene, with iffes and with andes.” (“Wene” is an archaic word meaning something like “believe” or “suspect.”)

Here’s another, somewhat cooler, example of “ifs and ands” a century and a half later, from the English philosopher Ralph Cudworth’s The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678): “Absolutely and without any Ifs and Ands.”

Around this same time, “buts” were added to the mix. This is from the works of the Puritan theologian Thomas Goodwin (about 1680): “The Grants of Grace run without Ifs, and Ands, and Buts.”

The phrase has generally been “ifs, ands, or buts” for the last 300 years. In contemporary English, the OED notes, the “and” is no longer the old conditional “and,” but is “now prob. mostly understood as the ordinary sense of the word.”

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