Phrase of the day: a big If

We use the phrase that’s / it’s a big if to show that we realise that what we are about to say – or what someone has just been speculating about – is really very unlikely indeed to actually happen. It’s a sign that we’re clutching at straws, which means we’re still clinging on to slender hopes, looking for some small thing that might allow us to escape a difficult situation. Imagine you see a man drowning and you need to find a strong stick for him to hold on to so you can pull him out, but all you have is a bit of dried grass (straw). It’s basically that! You tell yourself that it might work! Maybe ….. but actually probably not! Oh, let’s just face it, shall we? There’s not a hope in hell it’ll work, is there!

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It seems that we’re living through times when clutching at straws and big ifs are pretty much all we have left – in my household at least. My son is an Arsenal supporter like Hugh is, and watched his team suffer another loss at the weekend – and this wasn’t just any old loss, but was a defeat at the hands of their deadliest rivals, Tottenham Hotspur. Their hopes of a Champions League place are fading, but as I said to him, if they win all their last games, they could still qualify in fourth place. He looked sceptical and said that’s a big if!  

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As a supporter of the Labour Party in the forthcoming election, I receive quite a few emails, one of which was encouraging young people to register to vote. Apparently, Labour has a fifteen-point lead over the Conservatives among 18-to-25-year-olds, so if they all register and they come out to vote, and that’s a huge if, Labour could still win. Or maybe if the polls are wrong and people begin to see that Prime Minister Theresa May isn’t really the strong leader that she claims to be … hey, I’m clutching at straws here, I know.

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There are two linguistic things to mention here about a big if. Firstly, I think a big if is probably (though I haven’t done any research on this) more often used with first conditionals, even though we generally associate second conditionals (if young people were to registerLabour would win) with things that we see as impossible. I guess this is because when you clutch at straws, you still have hope it’s not impossible! The second point is the way if is turned into a noun here. English is very flexible in the way words can change word class (verb to noun to adjective, etc.). If is also used as a noun in the phrase no ifs or buts, a phrase which is also useful for an election as it’s often used by journalists who are trying to get a straight answer from politicians – ‘No ifs or buts, are you going to put up taxes or not?’

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  • How would you translate a big if and clutching at straws into your language?
  • What big ifs are there in your life at the moment?
  • What have you been forced to accept there’s not a hope in hell of?
  • Do many young people vote where you live? What do you think stops them? What could be done to encourage them to vote more?
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