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Front Page - Friday, May 13, 2016

Ifs, etc.

I Swear

Vic Fleming

A wordier version of this column ran in 2008. That would have been shortly after the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette ran a certain editorial. In which it asserted that to say there are “no ifs, ands or buts” is wrong. The correct phrase, it averred, is “no ifs, ans or buts.” 

I believe the piece was written by David Barham, now the editorial page editor. But I think it fair to say that it represents the posture of the whole award-winning newspaper. Including Pulitzer-winner Paul Greenberg and WEHCO Media CEO Walter E. Hussman Jr. Quoting from the item in point:

When we heard that Oxford University had compiled a Top 10 List of the most annoying words and phrases in the English language, we began salivating. … One phrase that drives us nuts is “no ifs, ands or buts.” How did the word “and” replace the word “an”? Ifs and buts exclude, but “and” includes. Once upon a time, that poor little mite of a word, an, used to mean if. As in: “An’t please your majesty, we’ll slay the dragon forthwith.” As in Shakespeare. Or anything featuring Robin Hood.

That is exactly what I was taught regarding this same subject matter. Half a century ago. By either Nell Thomas in Senior English at Greenville High School or James Purcell in a first-year lit course at Davidson College. 

The editorial continues:

We understand that people will talk in their way, as is their habit, and, in short, colloquially. But if we read, in print, in a newspaper, in any document purportedly edited, just one more reference to “ifs, ands or buts,” we’re going to find that so-called copy editor and throttle him, her or it.

At this point, my own research kicks in. 

In chapter 11 of “A Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” Mark Twain wrote:

Your name, please?

I hight the Demoiselle Alisande la Carteloise, an it please you.

In chapter 10 of “A Legend of Montrose,” Sir Walter Scott wrote:

I could not speak a syllable of their savage gibberish, an it were to save me from the provost-marshal.

When I was getting into the crossword hobby, circa 2004, I saw that ands is a common crossword entry, clued as “No ifs, ___ or buts.” I raised the issue with other writers and editors. To a person, they were unaware of the point so eloquently made by Mr. Barham. 

I can conclude only that they had no Nell Thomas or James Purcell in their lives. Though others would say I’m just too darn picky. 

No one disputes that an was once a synonym of if. Some say, however, that the phrase “No ifs, ans or buts” is flawed, on the basis of redundancy. But that’s hardly the point. If, circa the days of Chaucer, the language had a phrase featuring an in its sense of being synonymous with if, – oh, forget it!    

Since 1994, the New York Times puzzle has clued ands with the convention objected to by the ADG (and me), doing so as recently as 2013. And … it’s what people say, having no knowledge about the alternative version.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.