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June 14th, 2006

If you will / play sports

by Barbara Wallraff

Barbara Charlip, of Southfield, Mich., writes: “My question is about the phrase ‘if you will.’ I first heard it used by Katie Couric and thought it odd. It had nothing to do with what she was talking about. Now it’s used on television by newscasters, talk-show hosts and people in round-table discussions. It is often used at the end of a sentence -- so it isn’t filler, giving the person time to think of what to say next. Where and why did this awful phrase get started? How can we stop its use before teenagers pick it up?”

Dear Barbara: “If you will” can mean the same thing as “as it were” -- that what the person just said shouldn’t be taken literally. For instance, the athletic director of the University of Colorado, Mike Bohn, said in an interview recently published in the Denver Post: “... improving all aspects of the program, rather than having to plug fingers in the dike, if you will.” Rep. Mike Rogers, of Michigan, called Abu Musab al-Zarqawi a “terrorist celeb, if you will,” according to the San Jose Mercury News. And Katie Couric, according to the Miami Herald, “was drawn, she said, to the opportunity of ‘hopefully putting a bit of a different bent, if you will, on the way evening news was delivered.’”

A very old meaning of “will” is “wish” or “desire,” as in “Do as you will.” So “if you will” actually makes some sense -- more than “as it were,” at any rate. All the same, the phrase suggests that the person speaking doesn’t quite trust listeners to understand that something like “fingers in the dike” or “different bent” is a figure of speech. Well, if you don’t think people will understand what you’re saying, why not say something else, instead of saying it and then nudging them with “if you will”?

I don’t think you need to worry that teenagers will latch onto “if you will,” though. They already have a word of their own that serves nearly the same purpose -- the unlovely “like.” See for yourself. The teen-speak equivalent of what Katie Couric said would be “... hopefully putting a bit of a, like, different bent on the way evening news was delivered.” If that were the only alternative (heaven forbid), wouldn’t you be glad Couric said “if you will”?

Kenneth E. Hitzke, of Madison, Wis., writes: “Quite often I hear people use the expression ‘play sports.’ I believe that is incorrect. No one can ‘play sports’ -- it must be ‘He played baseball’ or ‘He played football.’ Would you please clarify this?”

Dear Kenneth: To say someone “played baseball” is certainly more specific than saying he “played sports” -- and it’s good to be specific when you can. But what if the person plays baseball in baseball season, football in football season, and basketball in basketball season? That’s what the phrase “play sports” is for. Someone who plays sports isn’t necessarily an “all-around athlete,” but he or she is getting there.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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