Navigating conditional statements


Question: “In the following hypothetical example, is Dick considered a ‘trustee in trust,’ or only Sue? Example: ‘I, Tom, give my antique tractor to my son Dick, if he survives me, and if not, then to my daughter Sue, as trustee in trust for my grandson Harry.’”  (Phil Pegram)


Answer: Thanks for writing in, Phil. I like this question a lot. We’ll get to have a logic and grammar lesson all in one.

What we have here is called a “conditional sentence.” You see these in mathematics and computer programming a lot, the standard example being “if p, then q.” In English, the bulk of conditional sentences use an “if-then” structure: If p is true, then q is true.

As you have probably noticed, conditional sentences are made up of two clauses: a dependent clause which lays out the condition, called the “protasis,” and a main clause, called the “apodosis,” which lays out the consequences if the former clause is true. You will never hear those words again outside of a grammar class, so feel free to just focus on the main and dependent clauses.

Some conditional statements have multiple possible consequences depending upon the condition. These will often be “if-then-else” statements, as our example sentence today is. In an “if-then-else” statement, there are two (or more) possible outcomes with each outcome being mutually exclusive of the other. For example: “If my car will start, then I will drive to work, else I will walk.” You cannot both drive and walk to work at the same time (unless you’re Fred Flintstone). In an “if-then-else” statement, one outcome invalidates another.

Before we get to our initial question, it’s worth noting that “if not” and “else” are synonymous with one another, and are often used interchangeably. So now, let’s reorder our will a bit to make the clause clearer: “If my son Dick survives me, then I, Tom, give my antique tractor to him, else then to my daughter, Sue, as trustee in trust for my grandson Harry.” If Dick survives his father, then he gets the tractor, else Sue will hold it for her son, Harry. Sue is the only “trustee in trust” in this situation.

Understanding conditional statements is very important to modern life: If I flip off this light switch, then the room will go dark. If I press my keyboard just so, then a grammar column will appear. If someone starts talking about the “protasis” and “apodosis,” I will call him a nerd. It’s just cause and effect.

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