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Someone said

"Losing a child is a horrific thing if you are a parent."

Does that mean that he isn't a parent? Is "if" always used in a questioning context? Should he have used "when" instead if he was talking as a man who was a parent?

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  • In this sentence, if is used to introduce a qualifier. Perhaps the example doesn't need a qualifier, since losing a child should be horrific for everybody, not just parents.
    – Charles Addis
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 3:10
  • Sometimes you will hear if used as to denote a qualifier in giving instructions: You are to call the 911 if and only if there is an emergency.
    – Charles Addis
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 3:12
  • 4
    @CharlesAddis: A pediatric surgeon can also lose a child, but is likely less horrified than the child's parents. It depends on how you define "losing a child" (i.e. does it inherently mean "losing your own child"?)
    – Flater
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 11:29

3 Answers 3

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There are various similar ways of phrasing (just as there are in other languages).

For example:

  • Losing a child is a horrific thing if you are a parent.
  • Losing a child is a horrific thing when you are a parent.
  • Losing a child is a horrific thing for a parent.
  • Losing a child is a horrific thing to a parent.

The same concept exists in all these variations - the loss of a child and that this has a strong emotional impact on the parent of that child.

The if / when interchangeability here is like that of wenn in German which can also be used for both if and when.

Update: Robert's point on the use of you reminded me that in English there is not the distinction between impersonal, personal, direct and indirect. That is, you is written the same whether directly addressing someone, referring to someone indirectly, addressing someone in the singular or addressing in the plural.

As such, this can also be phrased (using a more formal form of speech):

  • Losing a child is a horrific thing if one is a parent.
  • Losing a child is a horrific thing when one is a parent.

where the use of one indicates a non-specific person.

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The sub context of this sentence I believe is the word "especially"

"Losing a child is a horrific thing [especially] if you are a parent."

The sentence is very general, it doesn't necessarily mean that the speaker is/isn't a parent but rather that losing a child is horrific for parents in general.

The reason I say this is because we don't know which "you" is being used in this sentence. The speaker could mean "one" (i.e. everyone, the general "you") or "you" meaning everyone excluding themselves.

Generally, it considered pretty formal to use the word "one" and so "you" has commonly been accepted to be generic.

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I think Vjm is confused because The speaker said "you" when not referring to a specific person. In this context, you means anybody, not just the person who he is talking to directly. Out of that anybody, only the people who are parents consider it horrific.

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