On the Unsuitableness of “IF” and the Intricacies of “BUT”

A short reflection on two even shorter words.

Don’t use “if” if…

The other day, I was reading the details of various phone services while logged into my carrier’s website. I came across a section that read:

Long distance charges apply if you don’t have an unlimited nationwide feature.

…so I’m like “Wait? Do I have an unlimited nationwide feature?” and it occurs to me that there was no reason for them to use the word “if” there. I’m logged in! Their system knows the answer to the if question and should simply provide the result instead of forcing me to figure out if I qualify.

Since you asked…

In some cases, of course, it might be valuable to let the user know that the result hinges on the state of things, but there’s an alternative to “if”. It’s called “since”. So that page, instead of what it said, should have been something more like:

Long distance charges would apply, but they don’t since you have an unlimited nationwide feature.

or

Long distance charges apply since you don’t have an unlimited nationwide feature. Upgrade now

I was initially going to just talk about software, but this actually applies to any kind of service, including one made of flesh and smiles. The keystone of service is anticipation. A good system will anticipate what the user needs/wants and will provide it as available. This means not saying “if” when the if statement in question can be evaluated by the server (machine or human) instead.

How to arrange your “but”

Framing is important. There are many other examples of this (in fact, I’m in the process of compiling a list of helpful ways to reframe things) but here’s a simple one. It relates to the word “but”. Specifically, to the order of the two clauses attached to the “but”. The example that prompted me to jot this idea down was deciding which of the following to write in my journal:

  • Wrecking my productivity, but it’s an awesome book.
  • Awesome book, but it’s wrecking my productivity.

As is readily apparent, the second part becomes the dominant or conclusive statement as it gets the final word against the first statement. In this case, I opted in the end to use the former option, because it affirms the value of reading the book rather than suggesting it’s not worth it in the long run. The book in question is a now-finished serial ebook called The Surprising Life and Death of Diggory Franklin, and the sentences above should give you an adequate warning/recommendation not to read it.

This bit about the buts is obvious in hindsight, but I found that laying it out explicitly like this helped me start noticing it a lot more and therefore reframing both my thoughts and my communication.

And yet…

Say you want to express to a cook both your enjoyment of a meal and your surprise at its spiciness, there are several options:

  • I really enjoyed this, but it was spicier than I expected.”
  • This was spicier than I expected, but I really enjoyed it.”

…but, maybe the extra spiciness didn’t detract from the enjoyment. In that case, a better conjunction would be “and”. Again, like before, this sounds obvious, but once consciously aware of it I started catching myself saying “but” in places that didn’t adequately capture what I wanted to say or in some cases were rude. The chef remark above has the potential to be rude, for example.


If you want to add to the reframing list, comment below or shoot me an email at malcolm@[thisdomain].

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I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm trying to figure out how humans work so I can help make humanity work. More about me.

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