"He was ten stories high if he was a foot": Wha?

I first noticed the expression in the title in a Seinfeld episode, but I’ve seen similar expressions since then (like “he was seven feet tall if he was a foot”)

What exactly is the origin of the last part of the sentence i.e. “if he was a foot”?
I can see that it is trying to intensify the meaning of the first part of the sentence, but it makes no sense to me.

If we rearrange the sentence it doesn’t make any sense at all:
“If he was a foot tall, he was seven feet tall”

If we use other scenarios, I don’t think it works:

  • “He was 100 years old if he was a week”
  • “It was worth a million dollars if it was worth a dollar”

My questions are

  1. What is the origin of such an expression?
  2. Does this expression have a name?
  3. Why would anyone add “if he was a foot” to “he was ten stories tall”?
  4. Linguistically speaking, why did I understand the meaning of the phrase when I first heard George Costanza say it, even though it parses to nonsense?

I’ve certainly heard the similar expression “She must be 50 if she’s a day”.

It just means, if said person is any height/age/whatever at all (which they clearly are), then they are a great height/age/whatever.

ETA: the age example I gave dates back to at least 1915, and that’s just the earliest I found by cursory Googling:

I don’t know if it has a name, though.

Googling also suggests that the “age” version is much more common than the “height” version: "must be" "if he's a day" - Google Search

It works perfectly ino ther scenarios. Some of your phrasing is a bit clumsy, so “worth a million bucks if it’s worth one” or “100 years old if it’s a day” work better, but the meaning is essentially identical and used commonly. And of course we have a description of an Ent “walking seven yards to a stride, if it was an inch” in LOTR.
The expression is commonly used in other scenarios in English.

I doubt if you’ll find a specific origin.


It’s a means of intensifying certainty. Why would anyone add “definitely” to “he was ten stories tall”? Why would anyone add “literally” to “he was ten stories tall”? They are all just ways of intensifying certainty. Basically what it is stating that the speaker saw it well enough that he would have to have mistaken one foot for ten stories to have confused things.

In contrast one might say that he was between 9 feet and 3 stories. That suggests that the circumstances didn’t allow for a very good assessment of height.

It doesn’t parse to nonsense. You understood it because it’s perfectly common English. To take the phrase structure to it’s logical extreme:

“If the vehicle was moving at all it was going 100 miles an hour”.
“If the actress was getting paid at all she was making a million bucks.”
“If they were using a ladder at all it was three stories tall.”
"If the house wasn’t built last week it was one hundred years old.

All those expressions parse exactly the same was as your originally expression.

“The vehicle was going 100 miles an hour if it was moving at all it”.
“She was making a million bucks if she was getting paid at all.”
“Their ladder was three stories tall if they were using a ladder at all.”
“The house was one hundred years old if it was a week.”

They aren’t nonsense, they are perfectly standard English constructions.

They seem nonsensical to me. Especially sentences like “If the house wasn’t built last week it was one hundred years old”. If someone said that to me I’d try to see what they’re smoking.

BTW, “If frogs like flies, that house is one hundred years old” is also a perfectly valid English sentence grammatically, but that doesn’t mean it’s reasonable to say such things.


Then I really can’t help you. They demonstrably are not nonsense, as evidenced by the fact that every English speaker can make perfect sense of them. As you read you will find that expressions like that are common.

Really? So this makes no sense to you:

“You have inquired as to the age of the house you wish to purchase. I can not give you a definitive answer, however state laws prevented all new construction in this region after May 1909. These laws were repealed last week. So we can say with certainty that if the house wasn’t built last week it is at least one hundred years old.”

If that construction makes you think that the writer is smoking drugs then you are going to struggle with almost any English literature. I doubt if you will find any work that doesn’t include an expression of that type.

Can you explain why it’s not reasonable? That might help us to understand why you are struggling with these common English constructions.

Why do you believe that “If frogs like flies, that house is one hundred years old” is an unreasonable thing to say, yet presumably you believe that “If the glove fits you must acquit” is a reasonable thing to say? Both these are standard English constructions of exactly the same form. They both parse exactly the same way.

The only way such statements can be unreasonable is if the argument that led up to them is unreasonable. But lacking any knowledge of what arguments are involved how can you say that such statements are unreasonable or signs of drug use?

Not really. This construction is applied to almost everything in English.

If we’ve told you once, we’ve told you a hundred times… :wink:

While I don’t have any specific answers to your questions, the first time I heard that construction was in the early 70s. The tag team of Rip Hawk and Ric Flair were being introduced, and Rip Hawk (typically billed at 240 lbs) was billed in the 230s. Ric Flair then blurted out “240 pounds if he’s a pound.”

A fine example.

The construct the OP is writing about can seem odd if you think too long, but so can most expression if you repeat them a lot or if you’ve smoked marijuana.

It’s just a nice, enduring idiom that means “at the very least” or “literally.”

It’s fun to use a catty voice to say, “She’s sixty-five, if she’s a day.”

“At the very least.”

Let’s look at this logically (even though conversational idioms don’t always follow formal logic).

You’re correct that “P, if Q” is logically equivalent to “If Q, then P.”

Given the premises “If Q then P” and “Q is true,” a necessary conclusion is that “P is true.” Thus, a whimsical, roundabout way of stating that P is true is to state, “If Q then P” with a Q that is trivially, obviously true.

It’s related to the ploy of indirectly stating that P is false by saying “If P then Q” with a Q that is obviously false, as in, “If _____, then I’m the king of England!

If you have to give those specific set of conditions I guess it makes sense. But for the similar “He’s 80 years old, if he’s a day” how can it apply?
He’s either 80 years old or he’s a day old? No where inbetween?

Exactly! He’s not a newborn infant, therefore he’s at least 80. Now you’ve got it.

Yes! And you know that he’s not a newborn…that’s obvious. So guess how old he is!

The only thing I would add to this is that, in the “He was seven feet tall if he was a foot” example, the “if he was a foot” part doesn’t really mean “if he was exactly one foot tall” – it means “if he was at least a foot tall”. We know that every adult human is indeed at least a foot tall; thus, we can infer that this particular human was definitely at least a foot tall (i.e., Q is obviously true), and therefore, that this human was definitely seven feet tall (i.e., P is true).

This is similar to expressions like “I’ll do it, or my name isn’t ______”. It’s just a humorously paradoxical way of stating that something is categorically true, by making the statement a conditional (which is normally the opposite of a categorically true statement), but making the condition something that is so obvious that it should be self-evident to anyone who is not a complete fool.

(I guess you could say this is also somewhat related to the “Is the Pope Catholic?” rejoinder to anyone who asks a question to which the answer is supposedly obvious.)

But do these two phrases mean the same thing:

“He’s 80 years old if he was a day.”
“He’s 80 years old if not a day.”

The second seems to make sense, the first not so much.

Think of the first as “He’s 80 years old if he’s at least one day old” and the second as “He’s 80 years old if he’s not exactly one day old”. Then both make sense.

I understand that. It’s just that when I first heard this construct it seemed awkward, like the following code (for those of you who are programmers)

if (1)
   x = 5;

Yes, it compiles and runs properly, since ‘1’ always evaluates to true, but the simple statement “x=5;” works just as well.

I understand that natural language has some intensifiers/structures to make the sentence flow better and to emphasize the meaning, and it is not just a series of simple statements.

It’s just that some of these structures may look strange at first glance, and then seem OK once you get used to them. I guess the one in the OP is one of them. Outside of that Seinfeld episode I don’t notice this construct very often.

However, as the following related two examples show, once you are used to an expression, it sounds perfectly normal

A related one is also “I’ll give you your money when pigs fly”

To which, of course, the reply was “Then it wasn’t an inch”. One of the hobbits was down at the tavern telling folks there that he saw a tree walking, and nobody believes him.

I’ve always read constructions like, “He was over six feet tall if he was a foot,” as a way of saying how obviously large he is. You can easily tell that’s he’s more than a foot tall, and you should just as easily be able to tell that he’s over six feet tall.

Let me put it another way. If someone said

  • He was seven feet tall if the Pope is Catholic
  • She was 100 years old if NYC is on the East Coast

you would understand what they meant, since both “Pope is Catholic” and “NYC is on the East Coast” are true statements.

But wouldn’t you be “WTF?”

Just because “If <some true statement>, then <some other statement>” is a logically and grammatically valid way of saying “<some other statement>”, not all combinations of “<some true statement>” and “<some other statement>” are “reasonable” (Of course what is a reasonable combination depends on what you are used to hearing)

It’s worth a million dollars if it’s worth a penny.

Neither. You are changing tenses in the first one (he IS 80 years old if he WAS a day). The tense should stay consistent.

In the second sentence you are basically saying “if he is not a day [old] then he is 80 years old.”

It should be “He is 80 years old if he is a day [old]”.

The pattern is “A is x if it is y”. Where both x and y modify A and y is a much smaller or more general form of x. It’s not just any ole true statement.

He’s the Pope if he’s a bishop. (Stupid but it follows the pattern).
The Empire State Building is a thousand feet tall if it’s an inch.