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If You Like

In British English­­––but never in American––one constantly hears the phrase if you like, equivalent in American English to if you will (or, less typically, so to speak and as it were). British speakers resort to this phrase to qualify the word or clause that is immediately contiguous to it, specifically to blunt their assertory or metaphorical force. As with American if you will, the literal meaning of the phrase is not what is meant; rather, the meaning is “if I may say so,” “if I may be allowed to put it this way.” (A particularly extreme use of if you like, rising to the status of a verbal tic, can be heard, for example, in the speech of the BBC reporter, Nick Childs.) Alongside other apotropaic expressions heard more and more frequently on both sides of the Atlantic, this exclusively British one is PLACATORY BEFORE THE FACT, uttered not only to defang the purport of whatever is being asserted but to forestall any possible objection. This has the collateral effect of keeping the channel of communication open, specifically by allowing the speaker to control the general tenor of the discourse.

As a contemporary discourse strategy, British if you like is much more frequent than its American equivalent if you will, which has waned markedly since its heyday in the latter part of the preceding century. One can infer that the cultural and social exigencies under which speakers of British English operate still require anodizing their assertory or metaphorical discourse to a higher degree than do their American counterparts.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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