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

Well, somebody had to be the first to say it. The first people to hear it weren’t used to the technique, but it caught on anyway.

People aren’t always logical creatures, and our languages reflect that.

Except, in this case, there’s no faulting of the logic. It makes perfect sense.

This construction was used to great effect by Jon Stewart the day after the election. He showed a clip of Obama saying that his daughters would now get their puppy, and then pointed out that his father had said the same thing to him: “You’ll get a dog when I become president of the United States!”

True enough.

  1. Dunno. Probably goes back to the ice age.

  2. In some cases, it’s hyperbole. In others, it’s some sort of empty qualifier. In most cases, I’d consider it to be a simple idiom.

  3. It’s used as an intensifier. It should be noted, though, that saying “He was seven feet tall if he was an inch” doesn’t necessarily parse to “He was seven feet tall”. The general understanding of the phrase is that the fellow in question was really, really tall. Maybe he was really only 6’ 10". Maybe he was actually 7’ 6". Or maybe he just stood a head above most of the people around him.

Like anything else that involves language, the precise meaning depends upon who is speaking, who is listening, and what is being discussed. Consider that same phrase–“He was seven feet tall if he was an inch”–spoken in different situations. Your good buddy, Joe, about some guy he saw driving a Fiat. A basketball coach talking to other basketball coaches about a potential recruit. The drunk guy at the bar who always has an outlandish story to tell.

The exact meaning in each of those instances would be different–Joe didn’t actually see the man stand, nor did he have a measuring stick handy; the coach is highly adept at determing a person’s height and it is an important part of his business; the storyteller is trying to make an impression.

  1. Has been discussed by others in much detail.

This makes sense.

What if he was a hand?

So does “He was seven feet tall if the Pope is Catholic”

Does the above sentence sound good to you?

It makes perfect sense, if that’s what your asking.

It doesn’t sound as good because the concepts are disconnected and the resulting structure is jarring. The Pope has nothing to do with measures of length, so there is no internal consistency to the comparison. It’s a sloppy construction which, unsurprisingly doesn’t sound good. As msmith537 points out, “He’s the Pope if he’s a bishop” sounds much better, though silly, because the two concepts are valid comparisons.

Then he’d be a horse.

I think the problem that Polerius has is because of the following things:

  1. This way of saying things is an idiom.
  2. It’s probably a somewhat old-fashioned idiom that some people (including Polerius) are not familiar with.

It’s not quite as logical as people make it out to be. It’s true that it could be rephrased as “If he’s at least as tall as one foot, then he’s ten stories tall,” which might be logically true, but that’s not the problem. It’s also an irrelevant statement. It’s also true to say, “If he weighs at least one gram, then he’s ten stories tall,” or “If he’s made of atoms, then he’s ten stories tall,” or “If the moon isn’t made of green cheese, then he’s ten stories tall,” or “If the universe exists, then he’s ten stories tall.” None of these make idiomatic expressions though. You can’t say the following in a natural conversation in English:

He’s ten stories tall if he weighs one gram.
He’s ten stories tall if he’s made of atoms.
He’s ten stories tall if the moon isn’t made of green cheese.
He’s ten stories tall if the universe exists.

In (certain dialects of) English, the idiom goes like this: “X has quantity Y if it has quantity Z.” In this expression, quantity Y must be much larger than and be measuring the same thing as quantity Z. If that isn’t true, it’s not an idiomatic expression in (certain dialects of) English. Idioms are not just about what phrases you use. They are about how you use them in a conversation. You have to use them in an idiomatic way. Using them in an idiomatic way is not about whether they make logical sense. Many idioms are illogical if you interpret them literally. You have to understand how they are used in the language. Most facts about English or any other language are simply arbitrary things that have to be memorized if you want to speak and understand the language correctly.

Well, yeah, I can parse it okay. But there’s no logical association between some random person and the Pope being Catholic. In normal usage, such as your original example (“He was ten stories high if he was a foot.”) there’s a logical association between being at least a foot tall and being ten stories tall. Note that I’m not saying that it’s logical for someone to be ten stories tall; that’s obviously an exaggeration unless we’re talking about a Paul Bunyon story.