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My understanding was that a sentence of the form:

I won't do X if Y happens

means something along the lines of

if Y happens I will not do X

Nigel Farage stated in a speech 'I wouldn't vote for Clinton if you paid me'. To my mind, this seems to be saying 'If you pay me, I will not vote for Clinton', but obviously he didn't mean that. What was the meaning he intended to convey?

Note: the full quote is

“I will say this: if I was an American citizen, I wouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton if you paid me!”

  • I kind of already just made the assumption and changed it, since it's tangential to the actual question. Separate from that, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Material_conditional is a fuller examination of "if-then" statements. It's also not really germane, but could be useful. – Jonathan Garber Aug 26 '16 at 13:08
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    When this kind of sentence is spoken, there is invariably a word or phrase in the if-clause which receives heavy emphasis. Here it would be paid. It means, You could even PAY me and I would not vote for him. Compare: She wouldn't go out with him if he were the last man on earth. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 26 '16 at 13:12
  • @JonathanGarber It's shocking that my question is tangential, anyway, after your edit the question looks really good! It is reflecting what I wanted to ask, thank you! – shintaroid Aug 26 '16 at 13:20
  • @shintaroid, no, not at all, I meant that who was being named was irrelevant to the underlying question, not that your question was irrelevant! – Jonathan Garber Aug 26 '16 at 13:22
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    "would" != "will". I think that's the source of your confusion. – Fund Monica's Lawsuit Aug 26 '16 at 14:48
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I wouldn't vote for Clinton if you paid me

The use of would and paid are examples of backshifts, which indicate that this is a hypothetical condition, not a real one. Furthermore, not if you paid me is a well-known idiom meaning under no circumstances.

The bit that makes the meaning clear is an implied even

I wouldn't vote for Clinton even if you paid me.

What it now means is that under any and all circumstances, even if you were to offer me money to do it, I would not vote for Clinton.

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    It's not always possible. For example "I won't go to watch the soccer game if it is raining" implies that I will go to watch the game if it is not raining. The original quote means "I will never vote for Clinton, whatever you do to try to persuade (or bribe) me". – alephzero Aug 26 '16 at 13:48
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    The key is that being paid to do X is considered a positive inducement to do X. So, saying you won't do something if paid means that even being paid to do it is not sufficient incentive, which means you really don't want to do it. If Y happening is anything other than a positive inducement, this relationship doesn't hold. – Useless Aug 26 '16 at 13:52
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    Good answer, except I would delete "under any and all circumstances". We should leave room for stronger versions such as "I would not do X if you put a gun to my head." – David42 Aug 26 '16 at 14:16
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    @shintaroid yeah, it all rests on the understanding that, normally, to get someone to do something that isn't enjoyable, you have to pay them. if someone won't do something even when paid, then it's really unpleasant. people play hypothetical games with this a lot: e.g., "How much money would you need to get to be willing to do X?" "Is there anything you wouldn't do no matter how large the payment?" – dbliss Aug 26 '16 at 18:10
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    @AnubhavSingh, it should be were, but was is widely used in informal speech. if you would pay me is the hypothetical version of if you will pay me, which is not correct. if you paid me is the hypothetical version of if you pay me, which is correct. Note the backshifting: pay->paid. – JavaLatte Aug 27 '16 at 7:18
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The headline gives only part of the sentence. The full sentence, as reported in The Guardian, is

“I will say this: if I was an American citizen, I wouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton if you paid me!”

We can isolate the conditional sentence as

If I was an American citizen, I wouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton if you paid me.

This is a typical conditional construction which uses the past simple form (here: was) in the if-clause and a modal (here: would in wouldn't vote) to indicate an unreal condition (sometimes called irrealis). Farage is not an American citizen, but this sentence talks about what he would not do if he was an American citizen.

The clause if you paid me is still in irrealis mode since it's in the past tense. Here if means even if.

So, the structure of the headline part of the quote is

I wouldn't do X, (even) if Y happened.

or, the reverse:

(Even) if Y happened, I wouldn't do X.

See also Michael Swan's Practical English Usage 261.10: If, meaning 'even if'

We can use 'if' to mean 'even if'.

I'll finish this job if it takes all night.

I wouldn't marry you if you were the last man in the world.

Except taken from 'if', meaning 'even if'. Why would ommision occur in some cases?

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    I don't think the "If I was an American citizen" part is really relevant. For example, Donald Trump, who is an American citizen, might say "I wouldn't vote for Clinton if you paid me", with exactly the same meaning as the part of Farage's sentence that's being asked about. – David Richerby Aug 26 '16 at 16:30
  • "even" is omitted from "...vote for Clinton if you..." (and is technically redundant in this context) because it is implied by the strong condition "if you paid me". – bwDraco Aug 28 '16 at 0:23
  • Since you mention the phrase "If I was an American citizen..." and discuss its use of the simple past we should point that in standard literary English this would be "If I were an American citizen...". Note to Captain Obvious: Yes, I am describing prescriptive grammar. – David42 Sep 8 '16 at 14:59
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As others have correctly pointed out, there is an implied "even" in this sentence. This expression is part of a family of similar expressions. In them the speaker expresses his strong disinclination to do something by naming some kind of inducement or modification of the task which would make it more necessary or palatable. Examples:

I would not do that to save my life.

I would not do that if they put a gun to my head.

I would not touch it with a ten foot pole.

I would not do that for all the gold in Christendom.

In each case the speaker is saying that the condition is insufficient to make him do the thing he is disinclined to do.

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I agree with everyone who said there is an implied "even."

I suspect part of the reason is the Imperfect Subjunctive. It is used when you want to imply that something would never happen. (http://www.spanishdict.com/topics/show/98)

In this case, the "paid" in "If you paid me" is in the imperfect subjunctive. This is similar to the use of "were" in "If I were you."

Disclaimer: Then again, it could just be idiomatic/ironic, which is the case with "am" in "and I'm the King of England," which is used also to convey veiled rejection.

  • No. It is not the imperfect subjunctive. That is something that Spanish and other Romance languages have. English does not not have either one, in the sense the those languages do. English has ways of talking about irrealis. There is no reason to resort to terms from Spanish to explain an Engish construction. 'If you paid me' is the past tense form (paid) expressing irrealis. – Alan Carmack Aug 29 '16 at 6:00
  • For instance, see this on the so-called imperfect. – Alan Carmack Aug 30 '16 at 23:35

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