In the following Washington Post's article (Feb. 13) reporting the outcome of CPAC 2011, I found the phrase if you must know.

I think this phrase means though it may not be essential knowledge that you are supposed to have, or just for your reference. What is the difference of nuance among if you must know, you may know, and you might know, which is difficult for non-native English learner to discern?

The three-day Conservative Political Action Conference ended Saturday afternoon with a meaningless presidential straw poll (if you must know, libertarian gadfly Ron Paul won for the second year in a row).

  • "What is the difference between 'if you...' and 'you might'" The rest I'll leave to the hounds. – fortunate1 Feb 13 '11 at 21:50
  • Fortunate. Can you tell me the meaning of 'leave to the hounds'? Does it mean 'Leave to the guessing'? – Yoichi Oishi Feb 13 '11 at 22:24
  • The references in my post had two dimensions, Yoichi. The first was generic: hounds referring to the dogs that chase the fox in the hunt -very like the commentating cohort here. The second (and this is certainly arcane) comes from another website I frequent - chowhound.chow.com/boards/45 -wherein the chattering regulars are called 'hounds'. – fortunate1 Feb 13 '11 at 22:39

"If you must know..." typically introduces a fact that the speaker is reluctant to reveal. It's a little rude, as it implies that the listener is being nosy (intrusive). E.g., "Why weren't you at work yesterday?" -- "If you must know, I was visiting a family member in the hospital."

"You may/might know" introduces a fact somewhat apologetically. My understanding of it is that it's apologizing for wasting the time of the listener if they already know the fact. I think it also implies that the speaker isn't presuming that the listener is ignorant of the fact (to prevent insulting the listener's intelligence).

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  • Nick. Thank you for yor explanation. However, in this sentence it looks paradoxical to me that the speaker who should be relunctant to reveal the fact – (Ron Paul won for the second year in a row) to readers tries to sport that he knew the fact. Doesn’t it? – Yoichi Oishi Feb 13 '11 at 22:24
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    I think in this case it's a fact that he feels obliged to report, but he's reluctant to acknowledge that Ron Paul is worth taking seriously in any respect (since it's fairly safe to assume that the reporter is a democrat, and doesn't like libertarians). – Hellion Feb 13 '11 at 23:16

The three-day Conservative Political Action Conference ended Saturday afternoon with a meaningless presidential straw poll (if you must know, libertarian gadfly Ron Paul won for the second year in a row).

The article is written in a very chatty style, and the writer has just described the culminating straw poll as essentially meaningless (which straw polls are by their very nature: Webster's defines straw poll as "an unofficial ballot conducted as a test of opinion"). In other words, it was a nonevent.

Given that context, "if you must know" is a chatty way of implying that no one would really want to know the outcome of such a poll unless he suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder or some kind of unhealthy fascination with trivia.

It has nothing to do with the phrases "you may know" or "you might know".

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  • I think this is the best explanation. The writer is being dismissive of the straw poll by using the phrase if you must know. – ghoppe Feb 14 '11 at 3:46
  • Robusto-san.毎度(まいど)ありがとうございます。Frankly speaking, it's difficult for a non-native speaker to read between lines by the nuance of 'if you must.' The more I read and the more I hear from you, the more I learn. – Yoichi Oishi Feb 14 '11 at 7:10
  • @Yoichi Oishi: Oishi-san, どう致しまして。I'm just glad I can help. I know how it feels to be learning the intricacies of other languages and cultures. – Robusto Feb 14 '11 at 9:29
  • get a room, you two! – fortunate1 Feb 14 '11 at 15:02
  • fortunate. I don’t know American social manner. Reason why I’ve joined this forum is not only to learn English but about your mindset. We, I would say Orientals attach prime importance to Rei (礼)social etiquette. We start from bowing, and end up with bowing. When we are benefitted by somebody who gave us knowledge, guide, whatsoever, we return thanks from our heart, bowing deeply. It's a duty , but it might look overly to you Westerners. If the exchange of our thanks annoys you, it’s the reflection of cultural difference between you and us, that’s the mindset I’m very interested in knowing. – Yoichi Oishi Feb 14 '11 at 21:45

Phrases of the form "if you must ... " (or indeed "if you must!" without a following verb) are a particular idiom in English.

It uses "must" in the sense of obligation, but the idiomatic part is that it is implying "you think you must do this, but I don't agree, and I'm going to provide or permit whatever you are asking, but grudgingly".

Edit: actually, it can be used even where there's no suggestion that the other person thinks that they 'must', but just that they're doing it anyway "If you must use that word, please don't do it in front of me!"

But in the case of "if you must know", since their knowing is dependent on the speaker's telling them, the implication is indeed "if (in your opinion) you have to know".

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How would native English speakers know that "if you must know" isn't intended literally?

The context provides an initial cue. No one, not even a person deeply interested in American conservative politics, really has to know that this particular libertarian gadfly has won the same meaningless straw poll for the second time. Thus the writer makes clear that he regards the information as unimportant.

When so using "if you must know" in spoken English, the speaker emphasizes the "must"—the very word he does not literally mean.

In the quoted statement, "if you must know" means "I'm going to tell you this fact even though you didn't ask and may not be interested." This fits the "chatty" style to which Robusto refers.

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