Is it an If or a Lest?

Written by Mark L. Levinson

Here’s an expression to drive you crazy:  “in case.”

“Just in case there’s a fire, we keep a bucket of sand handy.”  We keep the sand handy whether there’s a fire or not, because some day there might be one.

If you receive your raw material in English from Hebrew speakers, every “in case” could be a trap.  In Hebrew, the literal equivalent does not mean “lest” — that is, it does not mean “as a precaution against the possibility that.”  Dror the developer will write, “In case the TiePlumb program has trouble displaying your necktie, reinstall your camera software” and because he’s thinking in Hebrew, he doesn’t mean that in order to preclude future trouble, you should always reinstall the software.  What Dror the developer means to say is “If the TiePlumb program has trouble displaying your necktie, reinstall your camera software.”  

Explain that “in case” is not a synonym for “if,” and Dror will say “What about the red sign in the corridor?”  In case of fire, break glass.  Certainly the idea is that only an actual fire justifies breaking the glass.  It’s the same as “if.”

About that example, and many others, he’s right.  It seems to me that by “In case of” and “In a case” and “In the case” and “In cases” — almost every variation you can think of — we intend the “if” meaning.  The “lest” meaning belongs only to the special usage of “in case” followed directly by a clause (“in case this does that”).

But what about the following quotation, attributed to W.C. Fields?  “Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite, and furthermore always carry a small snake.”

How can “in case of fire” on the wall mean “if” and “in case of snakebite” from the rhinophymatous film star mean “lest”?

Maybe it has something to do with the phrase’s position in the sentence.  I’m not sure.  But an idiom that might mean either of two different things is a good idiom to stay away from in technical writing.  Use “if” to mean “if,” and rewrite to avoid “lest.”  Save words like “lest” for your forthcoming Robin Hood novel.

By the way, a conditional sentence — an “if” sentence — should normally wear its condition up front.  Sometimes you find yourself reading, or writing, a sentence that has one condition on the front and another on the back, like a double-sloganned tee shirt.  “If the stripes on your necktie are designed less than ten degrees off the vertical, then the TiePlumb straightness gauge may give an erroneous reading if the tie is unfamiliar.”  In such a sentence, you should gather the conditions together at the beginning:  “If your necktie is unfamiliar and its stripes are designed less than ten degrees off the vertical...”

Similarly, if you are describing evidence and counter-evidence, or characteristics of string ties as against bow ties, or advantages and disadvantages, you should normally group them instead of sandwiching or alternating them.  For example, you could write, “Although a stickpin necessarily leaves a hole in the fabric, it can be an elegant touch, but if it clashes it’s worse than nothing.”  However, you’re better off grouping the two reservations together:  “A stickpin necessarily leaves a hole in the fabric, and if it clashes it’s worse than nothing, but it can be an elegant touch.”

The only good use I’ve seen of the sandwich-structured sentence is the joke from the Great Depression:  If we had some ham, we could have ham and eggs, if we had some eggs.

Comments and questions are welcome: ]]

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.