Is If I Would Have Ever Standard Grammar?
Posted by Neal on October 4, 2010
In 1986, I couldn’t escape the song “If She Would Have Been Faithful” by Chicago. I hated it for three reasons. First, it was such a whiny, wimpy-sounding song. Of course, a lot of Chicago’s songs are like that, but second, I didn’t like the theme of this song: “I’m glad my old SO was unfaithful to me, because otherwise, I’d still be with her, and wouldn’t have met you.” I’ll admit, with so many hundreds of songs about love out there, unless you’re going to go farther afield and write about peanut butter, Adidas, or rocks to wind a piece of string around, it’s going to be difficult to find new things to say. Even so, the main thing I take away from this song is that the lyricists were trying too hard. And the third thing, the thing that topped it all off, was the nonstandard grammar in If she would have been faithful.
“If She Would Have Been Faithful” came out just a couple of years after I’d learned about English moods and tenses, and I still thought “Why do they do that?” every time I heard someone say “If I/you/we/etc. would have” when they meant “If I/you/we/etc. had”. The standard way of phrasing the thought in this song title is to use the past perfect tense for be: “If she had been faithful.” That line doesn’t scan the same as If she would have been faithful, but I’m sure that the songwriters could have made it work with skillful use of contractions, adverbs, and song-phrasing; maybe If she’d only been faithful. (For other examples of counterfactuals, there’s If it hadn’t been for these kids or If only we had swum….)
However, over the years I’ve wondered exactly why If I would have should be nonstandard. Sure, If I had is a shorter alternative that still sounds natural, but why should that alone be enough to deny If I would have? Furthermore, you can even make a couple of positive arguments in its favor.
Here’s one. We agree (don’t we?) that you express past-time counterfactuals with a past-perfect tense (i.e. the form with had plus past participle, e.g. had been). Furthermore, the past perfect tense of the modal verb would is would have. Therefore, if you can make a conditional referring to the present time such as If you would listen to me, we’d get along better, then you should also be able to make one referring to the past time, by putting the woulds into the past perfect: If you would have listened to me, we‘d have gotten along better.
The second argument is based on analogy: You can use could have in if-clauses; for example, If I could have helped them, I would have. So why can’t you do the same thing with would have?
These arguments are valid, and at various times during the history of English, ordinary past perfects and would have past perfects have both been in past-time counterfactual conditionals — in both the if-clause and the main clause! Right now, it happens that the ordinary past perfect has the if-clause in the standard language, and that’s why would have is unappreciated there. But in 100 years, the tables could have turned once again. Instead of If you had listened to me, we would have gotten along better, it might be If you would have listened to me, we had gotten along better. For more on the historical development of the past perfect tense in conditionals, as well as more information on the arguments in favor of “would have,” and an overview of what grammar books and linguists have had to say on this topic, I recommend this 2003 paper by Noriko Ishihara.
Despite the validity of the above arguments, though, they still may not be enough to bestow legitimacy on most uses of would have in an if-clause. Consider the difference between If you would listen to me, we’d get along better, and If you listened to me, we’d get along better. For some speakers, these sentences mean the same thing, but for others, the version with would listen carries an idea of willingness—a vestige of the oldest meaning of will/would: to want or be willing to. If the meaning difference is too subtle with the verb listen, try it with the verb die. If you died tomorrow, who would take care of your family? is a grim but grammatically ordinary question. In contrast, If you would die tomorrow, who would take care of your family? sounds like something said by a non-native speaker.
Following this reasoning, the clause if you would have listened to me shouldn’t mean completely the same thing as if you had listened to me, but something more like if you had been willing to listen to me. For that reason, many of the people who argue against if you would have (Glen, I’m looking at you) do it on the grounds that it should be reserved to mean if you had been willing to, and using it to mean just if you had erases a meaningful distinction.
To which the opposition might reply, “How meaningful a distinction?” Regarding our example, if someone is willing to listen, presumably they do listen, so really, how much practical difference is there between if you had been willing to listen and if you had actually gone ahead and listened? In her paper, Ishihara doubts such a meaning actually exists, writing, “Some grammarians seem to believe in the rare ‘legitimate’ usage of ‘would have’ in subordinate clauses.”
Finally, even if this “if you had been willing” meaning exists, it will most likely not occur to your audience. Even if you write “if you would have listened to me” and really do mean “if you had been willing to listen to me,” your audience will almost certainly interpret it with the same meaning as they would “if you had listened to me”. In that situation, you’d communicate your meaning better by just writing, “if you had been willing to listen to me”.