There’s a truck that I come across in our parking lot at work regularly. It has a bumper sticker on it that says:
If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you can read it in English, thank a soldier.
I just want to start out by saying I don’t have a problem with the sentiment – in particular. I might argue that being over here on our own continent with Canada and Mexico as our neighbors, we’ve been pretty safe from any sort of invasion that might result in us speaking another language, but that’s just conjecture and ignores the point the person is trying to express.
No, I want to strut with my computer programmer and grammar nerd feathers spread in full display for just a bit. Some of you may remember me shining a light on my analytical neurosis when I blogged first about the fascinating designs of gum wrappers and then about the proper use and restocking of public restroom toilet paper dispensers. The fact that you are still here means that you are ok with my quirks, so I think maybe I won’t run you off with this one. We shall see. If you have joined me since those posts, consider this one your test of loyalty.
The word ‘if’ conveys the notion that there is a condition here. A condition that could or could not be true. If the statement is always true (or always false), then there is no value in first stating the condition. You are just stating what is already known.
In the programming world, there are tools that help find inefficiencies in your code. This is one of the things it looks for. If you set a variable to zero and then immediately say “if the variable is not zero, do blah blah blah”, it’ll declare the “blah blah blah” to be dead code because the condition is always false. Similarly, if you checked “if the variable is zero”, the condition is always true so why have the condition? Just do “blah blah blah” and call it good.
So back to the bumper sticker. The bumper sticker was written in English. That means that anyone who reads it is reading it in English. There is no possibility of them reading it in any other language because it was written in English.
“If you can read this, thank a Teacher” is good, because the possibility exists that a person can’t read it. And, obviously, since they can’t read it, they won’t be thanking a teacher.
But the second sentence? The word they wanted wasn’t “if”. It was “since”. It is strongly implied that the second condition is dependent on the first; that is, the reader’s ability to, well, read. And we already know they are reading it in English since it was written in English. So what they meant to say was “Since you can read it in English, thank a soldier.”
Yes, yes, I know I overanalyzed the dang bumper sticker. That’s what I do. From an English standpoint, there’s probably nothing actually wrong with it. They used the repetitive words to emphasize their point. But something has to keep this high-powered brain (hah!) working during that walk into work. And the bumper sticker just didn’t hold up under close scrutiny. I submit that most probably don’t.