February 14, 2005

All You Have To Do Is Call, And I'll Be There

But while I was thinking about the title of the last post--part of my program of making amends for dissing Paul (or did John do that one?)--I noticed the oddity of the rest of the chorus:

(1) All you have to do is call, and I'll be there.

Offhand (1) doesn't seem like a straightforward conjunction. If you don't call, I may not be there. What is conveyed is more like this:

(2) If you call, I'll be there.

Now, "all you have to do is" seems to me to be a dual of "you have to," somewhat as "if" is a dual of "only if." Compare the anankastic conditional

(3) If you want to pass this class, you have to finish all the homework


(4) If you want to pass this class, all you have to do is finish all the homework.

Where (3) expresses a necessary condition for passing the class, (4) expresses a sufficient condition.

So (2) means the same as the anankastic conditional

(5) All you have to do is call, if you want me to be there

which of course differs from (1) only by the substitution of "if you want me to" for "I'll."

I am kicking around a couple of ideas for how this might work (the Janneke Huitink paper Kai blogs here might help). But in the meantime I note that this construction might illuminate imperative-declarative conjunctions like

(6) Make a mistake and they jump all over you.

Earlier I cited Dwight Bolinger claiming that sentences like (6) are aphetics, not true imperatives at all. But (1) suggests (to me) that the imperative from of the first conjunct really does play a role here. "All you have to do is call" means something like the imperative "Call," but syntactically it's nothing like. So the fact that these two sentences have the same role when conjoined with a declarative suggests to me that we should look for a semantic/pragmatic explanation rather than a purely syntactic one.

(Whatever that means. What I really mean is that what Kent Bach called Bolinger's corny delete this-insert that transformations don't look like they'll work.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at February 14, 2005 04:18 PM

"All you have to do is call, and I'll be there" could be a powerful lover's (or friend's) overstatement--expressing the impossible--if the people are far apart.

Posted by: Matt's mom at February 15, 2005 02:15 PM