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Is “if you will” a verbal tic?

Q: Is there any legitimate use for the phrase “if you will,” which I hear overused and abused on TV and radio? I’ve been wondering about this since hearing John Sununu repeatedly use it as filler the other day.

A: We once wrote a post in which we mentioned a few expressions that are “used to death in the media.” We included “in the final analysis,” “hit the ground running,” “on the ground,” “when all is said and done,” “at the end of the day,” and “if you will.”

We jokingly used the last one in a sentence: “First I take off my left shoe, and then, if you will, my right.”

Joking aside, “if you will” is much overused by interview subjects on the air and in print. The linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum, writing on the Language Log, has compared it to the use of “like” as a filler.

In his article, Pullum plucks more than a dozen sentences from the Wall Street Journal, containing what seem to be “quotes from educated and prosperous middle-aged persons—CEOs and so on.” And in each case he replaces the speaker’s “if you will” with “like.”

For example, the statement “They are, if you will, this country’s governing body” becomes “They are, like, this country’s governing body.” You get the idea: “if you will” is to pompous baby boomers what “like” is to their kids.

As Pullum says, “The people who grouse about like are myopic old whiners who haven’t looked at their own, like, linguistic foibles, if you will.”

In fact, “if you will” isn’t always empty filler. Before it became the annoying and meaningless tic it often is today, it had a legitimate usage (and it still does, among more careful speakers).

The Oxford English Dictionary says the expression is “sometimes used parenthetically to qualify a word or phrase” and can be interpreted as “if you wish it to be so called” or “if you choose or prefer to call it so.” (The OED doesn’t comment on the use of the phrase as mere throat-clearing.)

Similarly, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines “if you will” as meaning “if you wish to call it that,” and gives a literary example: “a kind of preoccupation, or obsession if you will” (Louis Auchincloss).

This is not the “will” that’s an auxiliary of the future tense. This is the verb that means to desire or wish, as well as to intend or propose “that something be done or happen,” as the OED says.

This sense of “will” is a remnant of an obsolete or archaic use that dates back to the 10th century in writing, one in which “will” is used transitively—that is, with an object (as in “she willed him to speak” or “your father wills it”). However, in the case of “if you will” the object is unstated.

The OED has this late 17th-century example: “Gravity … depends entirely on the constant and efficacious, and, if you will, the supernatural and miraculous Influence of Almighty God” (from William Whiston’s The New Theory of the Earth, 1696).

This 19th-century example is from the works of John Ruskin: “Very savage! monstrous! if you will” (from St. Mark’s Rest: The History of Venice, 1876).

Notice how the writers in those examples use “if you will” to qualify words, like “supernatural” and “monstrous,” that a reader might otherwise find startling. In effect, the meaning is “you might even say supernatural,” “you might even say monstrous.”

But “if you will” is also used in other ways, as in polite formulas like “Pass the salt, if you will,” “Imagine, if you will, a rustic cottage,” and “Tell the jury, if you will, where you were on the night of ….”

In those examples, “if you will” means something like “if you please.” (The OED’s definitions of “if you please” include “if it be your will.”)

Finally, “if you will” can be used in the sense of “if you desire” or “if you wish.”

The OED has an example from Sir Walter Scott. In a scene from the novel Kenilworth (1821), the Earl of Leicester’s wife makes a wish—that he would don the russet-brown cloak of a peasant. The Earl replies: “The sober russet shall be donned to-morrow, if you will.”

This usage is a cousin to a couple of old phrases in which the verb “will” has only an implied object: “if God will” and the later “God willing.”

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