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In The Thirty-Nine Steps, Sir Walter is describing a fish and says "Look at that big fellow. Four pounds if he's an ounce." I've heard similar phrases before but never understood what is being said beyond the emphasis of size.

I've struggled to parse this sentence and I am tempted to believe that it's a contraction of an older phrase. Any clues to the origin as well as the meaning would be much appreciated.

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There's an ellipsis at the beginning of the sentence (John Lawler tells us that this is conversational deletion):

[He is] four pounds if he’s an ounce.

Otherwise this is a perfectly ordinary conditional, described this way in Chapter 10, ‘Rhetorical Conditionals’, of Renaat Declerck and Susan Reed, Conditionals: A Comprehensive Empirical Analysis, 2001, p.345. (Their terminology rests on the stock formula for conditionals, ‘If P, then Q’).

In such examples (in which both clauses typically use an indication measure, amount, number, etc.), the function of the if-clause is to emphasize that there is no doubt whatever that the Q-clause is true. This type has much in common with a direct inferential, since it expresses ‘P is patently true, hence Q must be true too.’ However, the if-clause does not express a real premise, which (among other things) is clear from the fact that it typically follows the Q-clause (whereas premise-expressing P-clauses seldom do). Rather than being the P-clause of an inferential […] the if-clause is a purely rhetorical device to emphasize the truth of the Q-clause.

The fish obviously qualifies as weighing at least an ounce; argal, my assertion that he weighs four pounds is clearly true.

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    The opposite of 'If he's the world snooker champion, I'm a Dutchman' (not usually said by a Dutchman). – Edwin Ashworth May 2 '14 at 14:03
  • @EdwinAshworth D&R call that an 'ad absurdum' conditional. – StoneyB on hiatus May 2 '14 at 14:07
  • P345. In a monograph on conditionals. Impressive. – Edwin Ashworth May 2 '14 at 14:11
  • @EdwinAshworth Well it is comprehensive. – StoneyB on hiatus May 2 '14 at 14:12
  • And, apparently, empirical. – Edwin Ashworth May 2 '14 at 14:15
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The purpose of this idiomatic logic bomb is to establish a fervent belief in the truth of the statement at hand.

~~~The unreality of the falsity emphasizes and gives validity to the subjective "truth" that you are trying to put across in your statement.~~~


For example, if we went fishing and I stated, "Hey, Nice catch! Looks like it is at least three pounds."

You might respond, "Three pounds? Look at this big fellow; he is four pounds if he is an ounce."

You made the statement to emphasize the surety of your estimate.


This "comparison" between a false thing and a true thing uses the falsity to emphasize the truth.

"That man is sixty years old if he's a day."

Similar uses can also be done to emphasize a falsity:

"If she's a virgin, then I am a faery princess."

Hence, the unreality of the falsity emphasizes and gives validity to the subjective "truth" that you are trying to put across in your statement.

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I can only guess, I've never looked into this funny expression. It must be an elliptic formula with a lot left out. My guess would be:

  • I guess that fellow weighs at least four pounds. Does not matter if he's lacking an ounce or two.

I may be totally wrong. Interested what natives will say.

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    Yes you are totally wrong. – user24964 May 2 '14 at 16:00

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