“If it's too good to be true, it probably is,” said a voice on a morning television news show.
“Well, Buck, this one and its kin have been puzzling me for years,” said Bill Gronos, of Oklahoma City. “It seems that logical cases could be made for both that expression and also the form, ‘If it's too good to be true, it probably isn't.' Can strict grammar usage come down categorically on one or the other?”
Well, Bill, we're talking about logic, not grammar, in this case. In the first place, if it's too good to be true, it is too good to be true. No probability there. But “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” leads to two possibilities: Either it's true or not true.
The sentence employs an ellipsis — the omission of a word or phrase necessary to complete the syntax, but not necessary for understanding.
When you encounter an ellipsis, you have to supply the missing words. In the sentence Bill heard, there are two ways you can complete the thought:
“If it [sounds] too good to be true, it probably is [too good to be true].
Or: “If it [sounds] too good to be true, it probably is [true].”
Buck figures the TV person meant it's probably too good to be true, but he left himself wide open for misinterpretation.
“The price on the sign says 35 cents a gallon,” said Sherman Grant as he filled up at Curly's Soonerco. “That looks too good to be true.”
“It is,” said Gopher. “It's supposed to read ‘$3.35,' but we just had one 3.”
Send questions to Gene Owens, 104 Belspring Lane, Anderson, SC 29621, or email BucksEnglish@aol.com. Please let Buck know what town you're from.