Just in case…

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.

3 Comments

Filed under Language

3 responses to “Just in case…

  1. In fact, it's not just about future eventualities. It's more about arming yourself against things about which you have uncertain information. So "break the glass in case there's a fire" could either mean"break the glass now because there might be a fire later" or, in principle, "break the glass now because there may be a fire". The latter only works if you don't have enough information to know if there's a fire or not.

  2. i would suspect that german speakers are fine with 'in case', because it translates as 'fuer den fall/im fall' which means exactly the same as 'in case'.

  3. Yes, though I was under the impression that there was a distinction between "für den Fall dass", which means essentially the same as English "in case" and "im Fall(e) dass", which would be best translated "in the event that". So I could imagine German speakers finding "in case" something of a false friend.But I may be wrong about that distinction in German, so please correct me if so!

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