What does the idiomatic expression ‘if anything’ mean?

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Jose A. Carillo

Jose A. Carillo

Here’s an interesting question about idiom usage from an old-time member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum, JonathanFValdez:

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“It’s been a while since I last visited and I’m glad to see that all is well (at least in the Forum). Like many of our kababayans here in Los Angeles, my family and I are glued to the TV watching the progress of the relief efforts in the areas devastated by Yolanda. We all hope and pray for our countrymen especially in those hard-hit areas.

“More than twice, I’ve come across the phrase ‘if anything,’ the latest of which was in the following passage that I read this afternoon:

“‘I do not believe that substituting more precise words and phrases for an equivocal word would decrease the scientific quality of the writing. If anything, I felt that the precision of the communication process was improved in the 110 instances in which the ‘e-word’ was replaced.  Equivocal words can always be replaced by other words or phrases that convey a more precise meaning in a scientific context.’

“Please clarify when and how ‘if anything’ is used.

“By the way, is ‘first foray’ redundant, given that one definition of ‘foray’ is ‘an initial attempt’?”

My reply to Jonathan:

I’m sorry to say that all’s not well in the Philippines after the devastation wrought by the quelling of the MNLF rebellion in Zamboanga, by the 7.2-magnitude earthquake in Bohol, and more recently by Typhoon Yolanda in Eastern Visayas. Many parts of the nation are in a veritable state of calamity—people, habitations, commerce, infrastructure, governance, the public sphere and all—and I don’t think we’d be seeing the end to it soon. We just have to brace ourselves for the long, backbreaking effort towards recovery and rehabilitation.

Now regarding your question about “if anything.”

The idiom “if anything” is used to convey the sense that someone or something is different when the speaker isn’t absolutely sure if there really is any change or difference. The  closest meaning I can think of for it is “if at all” or, in a more measurable sense, “if in any degree,” as in “If anything, the government response to the Typhoon Yolanda disaster has shown that the Philippines is never too ready for the severe weather disruptions to be brought about by climate change” or “Your flawed solution to that quadratic equation has demonstrated that, if anything, you need a refresher course in advanced algebra.”

In Tagalog, I think the closest equivalent idiom to “if anything” is “kung tutuusin,” as in “Kung tutuusin, mukhang walang kalatoy-latoy ang tugon mo sa napakalaking  problemang hinaharap ng bayan ngayon” (“If anything, it looks like your response is too ineffectual for the huge problem being faced by the country today.”)

We need to keep in mind that “if anything” suggests tentatively that something may be true—often the opposite—of something previously said or implied. This is actually the case with the passage you provided. The declaration of the first sentence, “I do not believe that substituting more precise words and phrases for an equivocal word would decrease the scientific quality of the writing,” is supported by the next sentence, which uses “if anything” to emphasize that such word or phrase substitutions indeed can improve rather than impede the communication process.

As to the phrase “first foray,” it’s not redundant at all. The sense of “foray” is not “an initial attempt” but “a brief excursion or attempt, especially outside one’s accustomed sphere” or “a sudden or irregular invasion or attack for war or spoils.” “Foray” conveys not “initialness” but “briefness” or “suddenness.” Thus, the use of “first foray” in the following sentence is definitely not redundant: “Her first foray into fashion modeling was forgettable, but her second made her so widely acclaimed as to be considered international beauty queen material.”

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.

j8carillo@yahoo.com

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2 Comments

  1. jfv: I would have done so, but I had to observe my column’s word-count limit. I posted your apology in Jose Carillo’s English Forum though. I hope that would suffice.

  2. joe, i just wished you also included my apology/clarification on my misspeaking about “all is well.”. jfv