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In the following dialog,

Wife: I'm a terrible mother.
Husband: No, no, no, you're not. If anything, I'm a horrible father.

What does "if anything" mean? Is it a fixed expression? An idiom?

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3 Answers 3

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Yes, it's a fixed expression. In your example sentence it's used in a way that's arguably a generalization of its original usage, which makes it harder to understand what it means if you don't already recognize it as an idiom. However, it makes a lot more sense in contexts such as:

He didn't help me at all. If [he did] anything, he made my job harder by constantly interrupting me.

or:

We don't need another fancy dinnerware set. If [we need] anything, we need to sell some of the old ones that we never use.

or:

That's not a problem. If [it's] anything, it's an opportunity.

Your example dialogue, however, doesn't quite fit that basic pattern. Instead, the actual "expanded" meaning of the husband's reply would be something like:

No, no, no, you're not. If any of us is a horrible parent, then I'm a horrible father [because I believe you're a better parent than I am].

But the fixed expression "if anything" is common and widely enough understood in English that it gets the meaning across, even if it's arguably not 100% grammatically correct in this case. (Then again, grammar is defined by usage, and one can certainly also argue that the fixed phrase "if anything" has long since acquired its own established meaning and usage rules that make the usage in your example grammatical, even if it may not have always been so.)

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  • Writing as a native speaker of British English, might I suggest that "if anything" can be interpreted as "if I/we had to be definite about this". Commented Feb 2, 2022 at 10:33
  • I don't believe your suggested interpretations are correct, (the text you inserted in the brackets). They honestly don't make sense to me in your examples. The other answers are better in my opinion
    – Ivo
    Commented Feb 2, 2022 at 11:20
  • +1 I think the critical thing to note about this expression is that it's generally used when you mean to completely contradict an assertion someone has just made - when something someone said is so wrong that the opposite is more likely to be true. Also important that it's a pretty neutral expression - you can use it in contexts where you're meaning to be polite as well as direct or more forceful. The context and tone dictate how it's taken so it's pretty safe for ESL speakers, I think.
    – J...
    Commented Feb 2, 2022 at 19:57
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Yes, it is a fixed expression. Oxford Dictionaries says:

used to suggest tentatively that something may be the case (often the opposite of something previously implied).

In this context, the husband means that, if it is true that one of them is a bad parent, it is him and not her.

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As a Certified Native English Speakertm, "if anything" feels like a shortened phrase. I interpret the phrase to be short for "If anything is true, it's that...", which serves to diminish the previous statement.

e.g Wife: "I'm a terrible mother."

Husband: "No, no, no, you're not. If anything is true, it's that I'm a horrible father" (so you couldn't be that terrible).

A slight note, this isn't a phrase that's used when the "true" thing is too self-evident. If you don't know how to swim, saying "If anything, I'm a terrible swimmer" is not idiomatic. I can be better than a toddler at spelling, but that's not reassuring.

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    +1 And to add that it also has the nuance of "if anything is true and relevant to this situation..."
    – gotube
    Commented Feb 1, 2022 at 21:40

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