I was reminded yesterday of how the phrase in case, when followed by a sentence, doesn’t mean what non-native speakers often think it means. This post is aimed mainly at those non-native readers…
Let’s start with an example:
I’ll buy an umbrella in case it rains.
For most modern native speakers of English, this does not mean “I’ll buy an umbrella if it rains.” But that seems to be how many non-natives interpret it. If a native speaker said that sentence, however, you would almost certainly be wrong to assume that’s what they meant.
So what does the sentence mean? It actually means something like: “I’ll buy an umbrella now because it may rain in the future”. The phrase in case in this construction is about arming yourself against future eventualities: “I’d better write my will now, in case I die suddenly”, “I always put on clean underwear in the morning, in case I get lucky in the evening”.
To confuse matters slightly, the phrase in case of has the expected meaning. For example: “break glass in case of fire”. This means that you should break the glass if there’s a fire. An instruction like “break the glass in case there’s a fire” means that you should break the glass now because there might be a fire later.
In fact, to make things really confusing, the phrase in case of can have both meanings, and is potentially ambiguous. In principle “break glass in case of fire” could be interpreted to mean that you should break the glass now as a precaution; common sense tells you that’s not what’s meant. The sentence “break the glass in case there’s a fire”, however, means only one thing to most native speakers. So be careful what you tell them.