An unfinished sentence with an implied ending (i.e. the rest of the sentence would be something like "you wouldn't understand anyhow"). Usually when people say this, the implicit meaning is:

"I realize that you just asked a question, but the answer to that question is so obvious that even if I tell you the answer, you will probably be too stupid to understand it."

Sometimes it is said with a little more humorous undertones:

"I have known you for a while (or, You seem like a sharp fellow), so I'm sure that you don't realize how stupid that question is. Surely you really know the answer and just slipped up. If I smile while I say this, maybe you'll say something like 'heh heh how silly of me, of course', and then I won't have to publicly humiliate you."

Also used in the context of monetary exchange: “If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it” is a known idiom for expensive commodities (and often sexual work) attributed to John Pierpont Morgan.

There’s loads of other known idioms and quotes beginning with “If you have to ask…”(Armstrong 2020; Rowling 2020; pjswmkj 2016), all resting on the assumption that being unsure about {topic} means that the answer is no.

I’m of two minds about it. There’s the part of me that agrees: there’s things that cannot be explained: being in love, being rich enough to not worry about buying x… This resonates with some parts of Eastern philosophy and creeds (for example, Nirvana cannot possibly be explained in terms that we humans can understand1)

Then there’s the part of me that rests on the assumption that I don’t know, and have to actively look out for knowledge in the abstract. At some point, I have to ask to start getting somewhere. I understand the pedagogical value of letting a student find out for themselves, but just answering with “if you have to ask” without further help is counter-productive in many areas (like, say, science).

Maybe instead of using it as a cop-out for explanations—as some bad “teachers” do—we could build a better framework around these situations. We shouldn’t “just ask”, but also explain what we’ve done to reach this point.

Trust me, your tech support agent will thank you for it.

For a list of all the ways technology has failed to improve the quality of life, please press three ⇐ Part of Brevity Quest 2020 (245 words) ⇒ I must use the daylight to keep looking and the nights to write

References and Further Reading

Armstrong, Louis. 2020. “Quote by Louis Armstrong: "If You Have to Ask What Jazz Is, You’ll Never Know.".” Edited by Goodreads Inc. July 2, 2020.

Collins, Steven. 2010. Nirvana : Concept, Imagery, Narrative. Cambridge, U.K. New York: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2003. Nirvana and Other Buddhist Felicities. Cambridge University Press.

pjswmkj. 2016. “What Does the Quote "If You Have to Ask, You’ll Never Know" Mean?!” Edited by Reddit. June 3, 2016.

Rowling, J. K. 2020. “Quote by Jk Rowling : "If You Have to Ask, You’ll Never Know. If You Know, You Need Only Ask".” Edited by Goodreads Inc. July 2, 2020.

  1. There’s lots of discussion about this in Collins’ books about it. (Collins 2003, 135–90 for general discussion, 2010 for particular one.)

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