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I've bumped into the following expression a few times already:

If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

To me, the correct way to say it would be:

If something seems too good to be true, it probably is not.

The reasoning being that, if you make explicit the implicit "true" in the sentence we get:

If something seems too good to be true, it probably is true.

While surely it should be:

If something seems too good to be true, it probably is not true.

Am I missing something? Or maybe it is some sort of sarcasm?

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    This might be a bit of an idiom as well; even though the phrase may actually be a little bit ambiguous if taken at face value, fluent speakers learn to interpret it in a particular way. – David Z Jun 10 '18 at 5:14
60

I understand your reasoning, but the correct expansion of

If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

is

If something seems too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true.

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    Note that the second is has to be stressed in this case. – John Lawler Jun 9 '18 at 18:06
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    English grammar is constructed in such a way, that stressing is purely a stylistic issue. – technical_difficulty Jun 9 '18 at 21:09
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    Stendarr is wrong: English permits variable stress, but has typical patterns and cases like this one where the point being made requires a particular stress pattern. That said, Mr Lawler's point is trivial since the final syllable of any statement is typically somewhat stressed to indicate the completion of the thought. – lly Jun 10 '18 at 2:29
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    @stendarr: “I never said she stole my money – mindriot Jun 11 '18 at 9:22
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    This answer is too good to be true – Ooker Jun 11 '18 at 13:29
14

Yes, you're missing something. You simply want to reaffirm the hypothetical's predicate

something seems too good to be true

with

it probably is [too good to be true].

to be true is not the predicate but a complement of too good.

If the fence seems too high to leap, it probably is too high to leap.

12

You did [miss something].

James's answer above [this post] is a good reply but [it is also] terse. Tᴚoɯ's reply is fuller [than James's reply] but slightly misuses its terms.


If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

The expansion of the main clause [of this conditional sentence] repeats the entire subject complement of the 'if' clause that comes before [it].

If something seems too good to be true, it probably is [too good to be true].

'To be true' is just an object complement describing the way in which the thing is 'too good'.


To step outside the somewhat tautological grammar terms, though, it may be helpful for you to realize that [the sense of the word] 'seems' [being used here] means

  • 'appears to be'
  • 'to apparently be'
  • 'to be ~ in appearance'

Your conditional [sentence] could be rewritten

If something is too good to be true in appearance, it probably is too good to be true in reality.

because the 'is' in the 'if' clause is being contrasted with the 'seems'. That [situation] gives it more weight than [is] usual. It's an emphatic sense of 'be' that means 'to truly be', 'to really be', 'to be ~ in reality'.


Of course, written this way, you couldn't leave out the end of the main clause. If you wrote

If something is apparently too good to be true, it probably is.

people would probably understand [what] you [meant] but grammatically—like [it was] above—the main clause should be repeating the entire subject complement.

If something is apparently too good to be true, it probably is [apparently too good to be true].

including the 'apparently'.

You could sidestep that by including an adverb

If something is apparently too good to be true, it probably really is [too good to be true].

but that's much wordier, which is why the proverb is expressed the way [that] it is.


Edit: I think you understood that point about 'be', which caused your confusion. The mistake is that when you changed the sentence to read, 'if something seems to be good to be true, it probably is true' you also changed the antecedent of the second 'it'.

If something seems too good to be true, that something probably is too good to be true.

If something seems too good to be true, it probably is true that that something is too good to be true.

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    In case users are wondering why the answer has so many square brackets i.e. [blah, blah], lly is showing which words are commonly omitted in writing and in speech. Overall, it's done quite cleverly. – Mari-Lou A Jun 10 '18 at 8:19
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    But it's too long. The tersest (er, wait, is that even a word? Ah, never mind) answer is the best here. – Mr Lister Jun 10 '18 at 14:12
  • @MrLister I couldn't be terser than James's answer. I could just expand on the point, in case OP wanted to know why everyone was agreeing with James. – lly Jun 10 '18 at 15:19
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To add to Tᴚoɯɐuo's answer, the confusion probably stems from the fact that there are two verbs in the first part of the sentence, namely seems and to be. The verb is in the second part of the sentence refers to the former, even though it in itself is a form of the latter. In fact, too good to be true can be substituted for any description. Think of it as a formula:

If something seems <... insert the description of what this something seems like ...>, it probably is.

Examples: If something seems big, it probably is. If something seems just right, it probably is. If something seems too small, it probably is.

To simplify further, the phrase ultimately means "trust your gut".

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"Too good to be true," is an adjective clause, and functions in ways that are interchangeable with adjectives. When the sentence ends with "it probably is," it is implied that some precedent adjective is modifying the subject. It also appears to the original poster that "true," is the relevant adjective. But, in fact, "true," is merely functioning as part of the adjective clause. Apart from words contained in the adjective clause, there are no other adjectives in the sentence. So, given a proper understanding of how adjective clauses function, there should be no ambiguity as to which adjective / adjective clause is linked by the verb "is."

1

Pragmatics gives you the answer. Whether or not ‘true’ is considered part of the adjective clause ‘too good to be true’, a pragmatic take on the sentence strongly suggest that what seems too good be true is not true. I had the same problem with this proverb and just renounced explaining my concern with it. The fact that it never shocked any of my native English colleagues suggests that there is a core difference with French! Hello linguistic relativity!

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