If only, with would in two clauses (if only, would + infinitive, would + infinitive )



In Swan's Practical English Usage section 265 on (if only) item (b) would + infinitive (without to) to talk about the future, he gives the following example:

If only it would stop raining, we could go out

I was wondering if we could use (would) in the main clause too. I googled up but all the pages I have seen aren't any different than Swan's. Here's an example I made it up:

If only he would sell me his car this week, I would give him $1000 more.


Posted 2014-10-21T17:19:07.513

Reputation: 6 070



Using could in such contexts emphasises the fact that unless the required condition X is met, we can't take the action specified. Thus it's usually If X, I could [do what I want], or ...would [do what you want].

So by implication, using could in OP's second example would carry a fairly strong implication that I actually want to give him another $1000 - and the only thing stopping me doing what I want is he hasn't sold me the car this week (it's also implied that he's reluctant to sell, perhaps deliberately thwarting me).

By further implication, the use of if only in OP's example makes the second would rather less likely to a native speaker (we'd normally use could there, reflecting the "frustrated desire" associations of if only).

TL;DR: OP's first cited usage is perfectly normal. The second is valid, but slightly unusual because only implies something the speaker wants to be true - so it's more likely to be followed by some potential gain (from the speaker's perspective) that would result from X being true, rather than some concession he would be prepared to make if X were to be true (in some contexts, in order to make X be true).

FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica

Posted 2014-10-21T17:19:07.513

Reputation: 52 587

I'm not sure about that - the "would...would" example seems absolutely fine to me (as a native speaker) - with a slight difference in meaning; as you note the "could" emphasises that the extra $1000 becomes possible if the condition holds; with "would" it's more about becoming willing to pay it if the condition were satisfied... – psmears – 2014-10-21T20:55:04.817

@psmears: I did try to "hedge" that point quite a bit (it's only a further implication making it rather less likely than what we'd normally use! :). Maybe the preceding "only" doesn't imply anything relevant to you, but to me it suggests greater frustration at not being able to do what you want, rather than a simple statement of what would happen if the condition obtained. I'll just add that whenever someone says something starting with "If only...", they might well be told "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride". Oh - and welcome to ELL! :) – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2014-10-22T01:46:10.637

The "only" certainly implies frustration at not getting what one wants - but (in general) a "would" in the result clause then goes on to describe what one would be prepared to give in order to get that (as opposed to "could", which describes what you're being restrained from doing)! And thank you :-) – psmears – 2014-10-22T07:45:02.297

@psmears: These comments are actually convincing me that *only* in OP's second example is more significant than I originally thought. Your distinction re *would cede [if condition X were met]* as opposed to *could gain [if X]* is perfectly true. But to a considerable extent, *only* conflicts with the former because it implies the speaker actually wants that only [remaining?] condition to be met. The only justifiable change I can see is I didn't need to hedge my first statement so much... – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2014-10-22T12:53:07.647


The following sentence does not use "if only..." idiomatically, IMO.

If only he would sell me his car this week, I would give him $1000 more.

In an if-only statement, the independent (main) clause expresses something that becomes possible when the if-only condition is true. The thing made possible is something that is wished for.

In your example, "I would give him $1000 more" is not something that is made possible and wished for. It is a quid-pro-quo.

If he would sell me his car this week, I would give him $1000 more.

But this following sentence would be idiomatic if his selling you the car would allow you to drive to a gig where you could earn the additional money, for example; if you had a fleeting opportunity:

If only he would sell me his car this week, I could give him $1000 more.


Posted 2014-10-21T17:19:07.513

Reputation: 116 610

There's nothing wrong with the "if only...would...would" sentence. The main clause of an "if-only" statement doesn't have to express possibility - it's no different from an "if" statement, except that it expresses a (frustrated) desire for the condition to be true. Putting "could" changes the meaning - using "could" would indeed imply that paying an extra $1000 would become possible if the condition were satisfied; using "would" instead means that the speaker would be willing to pay extra in that case. – psmears – 2014-10-21T20:47:47.490

I agree with FumbleFingers that "unless the required condition is met, we can't take the action mentioned." In other words, the action expressed is impossible unless the condition is met. If only you noisy kids would play outside, I could take a nap. I don't see anything like that in I would give him $1000 more" "Would" expresses volition: it lies within the speaker's power to pay him $1000 more for the car whether he sells him the car this week or next. "Oh, how I wish he would sell me the car this week, for I would pay him $1000 more for it if he did..." doesn't make good sense, IMO. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2014-10-21T21:05:47.327

On the other hand: If only he would sell me the car this week, I would meet his price. makes sense. But I still think even that idea is idiomatically expressed with "could". – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2014-10-21T21:11:29.357

1I certainly agree that "would" expresses volition. But I'm not sure I see any difference between "... I would meet his price" versus "...I would give him $1000 more": grammatically they're identical, and in meaning they're very close (i.e. I'd be prepared to pay extra, if only he'd sell this week). – psmears – 2014-10-21T22:33:37.667

@psmears: I'm pretty sure that in OP's examples, "would" doesn't always have to imply volition (it may be a simple statement of consequential action, neither sought nor avoided). But "could" always implies *capability*, with the further implication of *not being able* if the specified condition isn't met. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2014-10-22T02:33:51.557

Thank you all for this very useful discussion, and thank you @psmears for joining in, your intervention was very good to get the most out of this post. Actually, I wanted to persuade the car's owner and make a speedy deal. So it was not like I wished or wanted badly to give them the $1000 as "an after sale" reward. It was more of an incentive. Of course, whether this should be worded with "could" or "would" is the topic at hand. If "would" was not appropriate, then I wish you would give an example illustrating the use of "would" with "I only" since I know now it's grammatical. – learner – 2014-10-22T07:32:17.983

1@FumbleFingers: No disagreement that that's what 'could' means in the examples. But the question was "can you use 'would' in this context", to which I'd answer "yes, but the meaning is different" :-). @ learner: How about: "If only he would let me in the kitchen, I would prepare dinner every night." – psmears – 2014-10-22T07:55:11.473

@psmears: to my ear, the idiomatic way to express I'd be prepared to pay extra, contingent upon his selling this week, not later is I'd be prepared to pay extra, only if he would sell the car to me this week. Isn't there a difference between only-if and if-only? – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2014-10-22T11:06:28.753

@TRomano: The difference between *only if* and *if only* in your example (and in general, I suspect) is that the latter form is strongly associated with what the speaker wants. So the more accurate paraphrasing might be something like *"I want to pay extra, but I can't unless he sells this week"*. The *only if* version carries no implications as to whether the speaker cares one way or the other about the extra payment being made or not - it just neutrally states the outcome if the precondition is met. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2014-10-22T13:20:56.683

@FumbleFingers: I agree with you, "if only" is "strongly associated with what the speaker wants". I'd say if-only expresses a wished-for condition. When wishes come true, you can do things you couldn't do before. But it's not necessarily true to say that when wishes come true, you would do things you wouldn't do before. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2014-10-22T13:27:13.670

1@TRomano: That's probably a clearer summary of the distinction than any other attempts we've been making in these comments. I originally thought OP was just asking a general question about using would/could to express a potential outcome *if* some neutrally-viewed condition obtains. But in the final analysis, if that condition is introduced by *if only*, it's no longer neutral - it becomes a *desired* condition (that the speaker wants, because he favours the outcome which will then arise/be possible). It's an incisive and subtle question, that I forgot to upvote until now. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2014-10-22T14:00:46.117

@TRomano: There can be more than one idiomatic way to express an idea :) Your "only if" sentence, though, fails to convey the desire for the condition to be fulfilled. And yes of course it's "not necessarily true to say that when wishes come true, you would do things you wouldn't do before" - but so what? The "if only...would" expression is useful in those cases where that is true. Here's a nice example from a newspaper headline (that appears to have had an apostrophe deleted).

– psmears – 2014-10-22T19:47:05.267

@psmears: Hmmmmm.... The ice may be melting beneath my feet with that headline. But it seems to me the headline has two wishes in it, not one. "I would (love to) marry Mike! -- if only he would ask me!" In the following two examples, I feel the second has something screwy about it. "I would love to take a nap -- if only those noisy kids would do their playing outdoors!" versus "If only those noisy kids would do their playing outdoors, I would love to take a nap." – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2014-10-22T20:39:08.693


Both of the original poster's examples are grammatically correct.

The second example (with "would" in both clauses) is a bit confusing. Most of the confusion is due to how long the sentence is. It can be shortened to:

If he sells me his car this week, I will give him $1,000 more.


Posted 2014-10-21T17:19:07.513

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