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What if defined as a phrase means:

What would result if ….? (Oxford)

‘What if nobody shows up?’

The differences between if and when is not the question, but if we say what when meaning:

What result when….?

can we say:

What when nobody shows up?

and if not, why?

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    It is actually idiomatic, I can confirm. 'You can't ride your bike to school !' 'But Mum, what when I get up late and need to rush ?' – Nigel J Mar 9 '18 at 20:52
  • @NigelJ is that the same general linguistic group that uses "might could"? They seem like they could be related somehow. – 1006a Mar 9 '18 at 21:23
  • @1006a I shall ask around my neighbourhood and find out what linguistic group they call themselves. 'Might could' I have never heard of. – Nigel J Mar 9 '18 at 21:51
  • "might could' is probably American these days. Hollywood sometimes uses it as "rustic" expression. – J. Taylor Mar 9 '18 at 23:09
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    Sounds totally off to me (AmE). But, linguistic note, in standard German, the word for 'if' is 'wenn', cognate with Eng 'when'. That is, it's not unnatural to have 'when' replace 'if'. – Mitch Mar 10 '18 at 0:22
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The difference between when and if seems important in this construction. Where if means that something may occur, when implies it probably will occur at some moment in the future.

That means that what when nobody shows up... sounds a bit strange, because it seems to imply that we already know that nobody will show up - which is not really a well defined event, because it presumably is equal to the current state of affairs.

On the other hand, when you organise a garden party and the dark clouds forming in the sky make it quite clear it will start raining at some point, you could ask yourself what when it starts raining?.

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  • "What when nobody shows up?" sounds fine to me. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Mar 9 '18 at 21:49
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    @Araucaria It sounds alright to me too, in a certain register. I'm not sure though that the elision would pass muster with educational examiners in the UK. What you are actually saying is: "What (about the times) when nobody shows up". – WS2 Mar 9 '18 at 22:06

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