If “If” Is a Verb…

I just finished reviewing the final page proofs of my upcoming book. This was an exciting milestone and a time consuming one. This was not time consuming in terms of heavy revisions. In fact, the page proof stage is the stage where there should be very few changes. This is the last check to be sure all is right. Nonetheless, this final read of the manuscript required attention to detail and careful editing.

So, I moved into detail mode. What is detail mode? I imagine that varies for everyone but for me, detail mode in writing translates to obsessing over every word, sentence structure, and formatting style. We are talking the level of using an en dash vs. an em dash, formatting paragraphs for easy reading, using heading styles properly, and making the reference list consistent with the in-text citations. The detail work was going fairly smoothly until I got to heading styles.

The transition between the copyedited version and the page proof version changed the heading styles in the book. Headings I thought would be c/lc (translation of copyediting lingo: capital/ lower case… capitalize first word and all others lower case) were changed to c/all (capitalize the first letter of every word in the heading). These changes resulted in inconsistent results—some headings had the first letter of each word capitalized and others had some words lower case. This perplexed me, so I asked the production team how to handle it. What I learned is that for the c/all style (every first letter capitalized), there are some exceptions where words are lower case. Most propositions are lower case, for example (for words like “about,” though, you use lower case as a preposition and upper case as an adverb). Verbs, regardless of length, are capitalized (e.g., “Is,” not “is;” “Are,” not “are”… you get it). The production team told me these general guidelines so I could review all the headings.

And then there was if.
If?
if?

I would normally think that “if” would be lower case. It is a short word and I was under the assumption that short words would be lower case. But in some of my headings, if was capitalized. And in others, it was not. So I queried the production team. In an email response to my query, the production manager said (and I quote):

“All verbs (such as are, if, is) should be capitalized, regardless of length. Please change accordingly.”

Ok. Good.
Wait. If isn’t a verb… is it?

I didn’t want to look like I had missed some strange grammatical situation in which if was a verb so I decided not to query the production team again. Am I crazy? Did I miss an entire lecture on “if” as a verb? I didn’t think so. But I figured I’d do a quick double check online.

This lead me to “Ifland,” which I imagine would be officially called (were it truly a place) the Land of Conditional Tenses. I spent a significant amount of time in Ifland. Too much, probably. My first wanderings there focused on looking for a rare grammatical structure in which “if” actually is a verb. What did I find? Well, if is not a verb. We knew that (and after an hour in Ifland the production manager emailed me back to say: “sorry, I should have been more clear… if is not a verb, but nor is it a preposition so it should be capitalized”). But what I found fascinated me beyond the initial query. To explain: Even though if is not a verb, in the Land of Conditional Tenses, “if” matters in important ways. You see (and please pardon the grammar-speak, but hang with me for a couple of introductions to life in Ifland): if the nature of the situation is such that the conditional clause is probable, then the verb in the conditional clause is present tense and the verb that follows in the main clause should be present or future tense (hence, it is or will happen). In other words:

If “if” is or will be possible, the verb is (or will be) possible.

Now, if nature of the situation is that the conditional clause is improbable or impossible, then the verb in the conditional clause is past tense and the verb that follows in the main clause is preceded by “would” (hence is more hypothetical or improbable) In other words:

If “if” was improbable, the verb would be probable in the hypothetical.

So, here’s the difference:

If I win a game at the State Fair, I will give my prize to my daughter.
vs.
If I won the lottery, I would save for my daughter’s college tuition.

Winning at the State Fair—probable (especially when you play the games that “guarantee a winner” with enough money thrown at them). Winning the lottery—improbable. So, what the “if” is matters significantly in terms of how you construct the sentence and whether the subsequent action will come to be. As I was soaking in these “rules,” popular culture lines and songs started swarming and gaining new meaning for me:

“If I were a rich man…”
(structured as improbable case… followed by “all day long I’d …”)
“If you build it, they will come…”
(structured as possible… and indeed they did)
“If I had a hammer…”
(structured as improbable case—which kind of makes me sad—followed by “I’d hammer in the morning…”)
“If I had a million dollars…”
(structured as improbable case.. followed by “I’d buy you…”)

Yes, the “if” matters in terms of whether the speaker of the words believes it can actually come to be.

Now–think about the way children use “if.” Regardless of whether children use correct grammatical structure or not– it seems that to a child, the “if” is always probable and completely possible:

“If I didn’t have school for a whole year, what would you let me do?”
“If Piper could talk, what do you think she would say?”
“If you could paint the sky any color in the world, what would you paint it?”
“If the Ipad didn’t cost anything, would you let me get it?”
“If you could make any movie, what movie would you want to make?”
“If we had an airplane, where would we go?”

These questions (all having come to me from my daughter at various stages in her life) imagine possibility. And in the eyes of my daughter, I think the “ifs” in these questions were always probable at the point at which she uttered them. To her, they could happen. And in some ways I could see the glimmer in her eyes that told me she was imagining them happen. In imagining the actuality of the event, she made the “ifs” active. They were alive. Breathing, living “ifs.” Movie reels rather than a photographs. Actions. Kind of like verbs.

Unfortunately, I think as we get older we lose the natural tendency to make “if” questions or statements probable, possible, and active. In fact, some of the “if” statements my daughter asks me now, I know she believes are improbable. I hear her asking, though, almost in a hopeful “I wish” kind of way. But they’ve lost some of their life and movement. I worry that “if” statements, as we get older, become regulated and mostly used for that which is clearly possible or concretely probable. The other “ifs” –the ones that imagine possibility or explore unknown territories—seem less of an active part of daily life. They become irrelevant. Impractical. They lose their moxie, if you will.


In the movie Night at the Museum, Battle of the Smithsonian, Larry (Ben Stiller’s character) and Amelia Earhart (Amy Adam’s character) go on an adventure to save some archived museum pieces. During one scene they fly the Wright Flyer from the Air and Space Museum back to the Museum of Natural History. The scene proceeds:

Larry: One of the wires is jammed. I’m going to have to loosen it.
Amelia: Here, take the stick! –
Larry: No! I’m not gonna… No!
Amelia: I know you’ve got moxie in you yet.
Larry: Moxie doesn’t fly planes! People who have pilots’ licenses fly planes!

As teachers, we are called upon to engage in an active, moving process: learning. Learning, to me, is not static. And I do not think it should ever be static. I hope learning about constant motion. Yet we can all remember times as a learner when learning feels static. Boring. Stuck. Immobile. How can we, as teachers, then, keep learning active?

A suggestion:

Make learning about “if.” And make if a verb. Make imagining possibility and exploring unknown territories something you do. Make possibility and curiosity alive and active in the classroom. Consider the improbable and explore making it probable. Some questions to further this:

• How can you support your students in imagining themselves as learners in new ways?
• How can you imagine yourself as a teacher in new ways?
• What curiosities could you explore about your content that you haven’t yet explored?
• What narratives could you challenge in order to create learning experiences that are alive and active?
• What stereotypes could you resist in order to see your classrooms with new eyes?
• What classrooms could you create that you never imagined you could before?

Doing this—making “if” a verb that drives teaching and learning—could take some courage. Some moxie.

Moxie is defined as “the ability to face difficulty with spirit and courage,” “aggressive energy and initiative” and “courage and determination” (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/moxie). I do see value in moxie. Yet Ben Stiller’s point is a good one. We can imagine new classrooms, export innovative curiosities, and see possibilities that we hadn’t seen before. When faced with a challenge, though—a student who struggles with a learning disability, a teaching day riddled with self doubt, or a classroom discussion that just falls flat—it is going to take some work. You might need a bit more than moxie to get through the challenge.


My daughter has recently joined the rock climbing team in town. She loves climbing and hence we are spending about three times a week at the climbing gym. I’m actually intrigued by the sport (and have signed up for a couple beginner classes… I’m sure that will lead to many future blogs 😉 ). Recently, I learned what it means to “spot” someone. I learned this during one trip to the gym when I made the claim: “Emma Grace, I can’t spot you. I don’t weigh much more than you. You are too heavy for me. There’s no way I can catch you.”

A few minutes after this claim, the coach of the team came over and gently corrected me. Spotting doesn’t mean catching a climber who falls. It means positioning yourself so that you can help the climber land on his or her feet. Or, at least, positioning yourself so that the climber does not land on his or her head. This usually means holding your hands up and moving around so that if the climber falls, your hands would land on the hips, shoulders, or back. What you do as a spotter is try to navigate the climber’s center of gravity to help balance the fall. It doesn’t matter how much you weigh or how much the climber weighs because you do not catch the climber. You just need to know how to direct the climber’s center of gravity. When you are spotting someone, to alert them, you say: “I’ve got your spot.” This means you are paying close attention to their climb and are ready to help navigate if needed.

It seems to me that this is a good way to think about teaching and learning, especially during moments when “if” is a verb and teachers and students are willing to explore what seems improbable, unavoidably facing the challenges that come with stepping out of the comfort zone that accompanies “business as usual.” Moxie is important, yes. But moxie alone might not get you or the student through the challenges that emerge during these moments.

A minor sidetrack: I do believe it takes time and practice and instruction to learn how to deal with important teaching and learning moments: the student struggling with a learning disability, the teaching day riddled with self doubt, the discussion that falls flat. I believe it is critical that teachers learn about teaching practices and theories that can inform these moments. This blog entry presumes that, though, and strongly encourages all teachers to do the preparatory work involved with learning to teach.  This preparatory work becomes your “pilot’s license” (if you will).

Back to moxie: Courage and determination and energy are important. But I wonder if they alone will carry me through a difficult situation.  I wonder how I can consider and reconsider how I enact these qualities with my students?  How do I put my moxie into practice, relationally?

Well, what if I considered my role differently? What if I become a spotter? What if I focus on directing a student’s center of gravity, rather than fixing or controlling or solving or walking away from a challenging learning situation? I might not fix everything. I might fall. My students might fall. But hopefully I can at least provide a centering force.

What if I could be a centering force? What if I were a centering force?
What if?
I believe we all have the power to do this—for ourselves and for others.  I believe doing this is an act of courage.

The book is off my desk and I will no longer need to visit Ifland. Yet, I plan to take seriously the two metaphorical souvenirs I stumbled upon in the Land of Conditional Tenses:

If matters.
I can make the improbable possible by changing the way I structure the conditions.

And now– I leave you with this same challenge for the classrooms of your life (capitalization style and verb tense intended):

If If Is a Verb, then What?

I hope you will rise to the challenge. I hope you will explore the improbably probable.
There are endless possibilities, If only…

And in the words of Amelia: “I know you’ve got moxie in you yet.”
Give it a try: I’ve got your spot.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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2 thoughts on “If “If” Is a Verb…

  1. Fabulous blog. But I wonder. Is it the improbability of the “if” that leads to the verb tense, or is it the expectation of the possible? Instead of, “If I won the lottery…,” one said, “If I win the lottery….” The two may be equally possible or improbable, but it seems as if the first verb tense controls the subsequent one. However, I must say that I was absolutely delighted to read that “if” should frequently be followed by “were.” It seems as if that is forever missing these days.

    • I love these ponderings. Happy to spend more time in Ifland with them ;-). I think the IF is the “wish”–how we construct the verb tense becomes the critical factor in terms of probability, yes? So IF can always be probable. We determine its possibility? Love it. Thanks Bill.