Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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”.

25 Responses to “Is If I Would Have Ever Standard Grammar?”

  1. Philip Whitman said

    Maybe it’s just because I’m old, but I still cringe at any use of “If I would have …”. Besides, “If I had …” is shorter, so why use “If I would have …”? My thinking is akin to Occam’s Razor. Why complicate things beyond necessity, when there is no need to do so?

    • Uly said

      Alternatively, “If I had” is more complicated.

      “I would have done this” is a subjunctive already. To make it iffical*, you just say “If I would have done this”. Easy peasy, no messing around with a past tense – how the heck did that get there????

      *Non-technical term, obviously. People who say things like iffical probably don’t also say subjunctive, sure, but I don’t know what they would say instead.

  2. Glen said

    Well, since you called me out…

    In the case of ‘listen’, I agree that ‘had listened’ versus ‘would have listened’ is a distinction without (much of) a difference. But with other verbs, I think the difference is more salient.

    Take, for instance, “If she had been faithful” versus “If she would have been faithful.” The former tells me that she wasn’t faithful — that is, she actually cheated. But the latter tells me there was an issue concerning the terms of the relationship; the woman in question was the cheating type, and she indicated an unwillingness to change her ways. And since I’m not keen on open relationships, I had to move on.

    I agree that, given the now-common usage of ‘would have’, other listeners might not recognize the same distinction. But that’s really my point. If people had internalized that kind of fine distinction in their grammar-learning youth, they would have been able to hear it now.

    • The Ridger said

      I don’t actually understand what your distinction is meant to be. “If she would have been faithful, we would have been happy, but…” what? I honestly don’t see how you intend that sentence to end to indicate a difference from “If she had been faithful”. “The cheating type” vs an actual cheater? Is this Neal’s “willfulness”?

      • Glen said

        Yes, I’m getting at the willingness issue. “If she had been faithful” says nothing about willingness; it indicates that she was indeed unfaithful. “If she would have been faithful,” on the other hand, says something about willingness; it indicates she was unwilling to be faithful. Perhaps she doesn’t believe in monogamy.

    • Ellen said

      While I agree that “If… would have” can indicate or imply a willingness, I don’t agree that “If she would have been faithful” does not also indicate an actual being unfaithful. “If she would have been faithful” does not work to describe someone who was not willing to be faithful and yet did not succeed in being unfaithful.

      And, I think, to me, it’s because of that expression of willingness that “If she had been faithful” just does not work, for me, as a substitute for “If she had been faithful”.

      • Ellen said

        Oops, cut and past error at the end there. That should read…

        And, I think, to me, it’s because of that expression of willingness that “If she had been faithful” just does not work, for me, as a substitute for “If she would have been faithful”.

  3. The Ridger said

    I’m sure I say “would have” because where I grew up it was pretty much standard usage. I don’t hear any meaningful meaning distinction between the two, except that “would’ve” is a bit more emphatic. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that “would’ve” is used to make sure you’re not saying “‘d”, which is ambiguous between “would come” and “had come”. You can do that by stressing the “HAD” of course, but sometimes that stress doesn’t seem to work.

    If he would’ve come (but he didn’t) is usually pronounced “if he’d’ve come” but can be “if he WOULD’ve come”. That seems to me, sitting here now thinking about it, to be putting some blame on him, as though he COULD have come but chose not to or SHOULD have come but didn’t, while “he’d’ve” id neutral towards his absence.

    Part of the problem, seems to me, is that (at least where I come from) you generally contract the auxiliary, and thus “if he’d come (and he still might)” sounds like “if he’d come (but he didn’t)”. Sure, saying “would come” and “had come” solves that, but sounds way to emphatic and/or stilted.

  4. Anya said

    I definitely hear a distinct difference in meaning between “would have listened” and “had listened”. It sounds screwy in the song because the meaning there seems to be “had been faithful” while “would have been faithful” is used.

  5. Viola said

    “Would” implies “the will” was most definitely intended in that song, otherwise “had” would suffice.

  6. Viola said

    I better quit while I’m ahead before I am not a head.

  7. Putakratu said

    We can also give the composer some credit (though I’m not sure Mr. Cetera or whoever wrote the lyrics was conscious of the dubious grammatical structure)and assume he/she was going out on a grammatical limb to keep the phrases parallel and therefore rhythmically coherent. “If she would have been faithful” and “If she would have been true” may both be questionable, but they are followed by the close stylistic neighbors (and grammatically correct)”I would have been cheated” and “I would have missed out on you.”

    Keeping things grammatically tidy often does not make for good poetry. Nor does the usage in question, ahem.

  8. Will said

    Hey, everybody wants a rock to wind a piece of string around. Don’t knock it.

  9. The Ridger said

    One of my coworkers came up with this:

    We used to say ‘had I’, but we can’t do that anymore because the aux has to be in second slot, not first, except in questions. So we added “if” – ‘if I had’. However, ‘if I had’ can be used for the present (though in such cases ‘had’ is the lexical verb, there is still interference) and while “would” is the counter-factual, ‘if I would’ is condition-possible (as in “If she would be faithful”) so to make it past tense and condition-unrealized we must say “would have VERB”.

    He doesn’t imagine anyone reasons their way to this position, only that this is an explanation for why ‘would have been’ sounds right to those who use it.

    I also think – on further consideration – that those who see a difference in meaning are doing that “if there are two forms there MUST be two meanings” thing.

  10. michael said

    i’m just surprised to hear “if X would have been” called non-standard. it’s perfectly grammatical for me, and, i thought, standard. well who’dathunkit?

  11. interestedparty said

    A teacher once told me that the “if I would have” structure comes from German influence on American English, but I don’t think this is true. And now I’m curious about whether other languages use this kind of structure. I’m pretty sure Spanish speakers don’t say the equivalent of “if I would have”.

    An even greater grammatical “mistake”, which by my reckoning happens about 80% of the time in spoken English, is people using “If I had…I would have” instead of “If I had had…I would have”, or “If I knew…I would have” instead of “If I had known…I would have”. There should be a post on THAT. Listen closely in conversation and you’ll notice people saying it all the time (among Americans anyway). So if that many people are saying it and no one is batting an eye, then I would have to say it is considered grammatical by a large number of people.

    • Ellen K. said

      Well, Spanish has the subjunctive. So, it would be “si hubiera”.

      • interestedparty said

        I’m wondering if Spanish speakers ever say “Si seria” instead of “si hubiera”, or something like that. Or if any other language has 2 ways of expressing past-time contractuals in the if clause, one considered standard and the other considered non-standard.

      • Alex said

        In Spanish, while I don’t think you hear “si habría sido” instead of “si hubiera sido,” you sometimes do hear the past subjunctive used where you would think to use a conditional:

        Quisiera una bira, per favor.
        No te hubiera dudado si hubiera sabido la verdad.


    • Neal said

      Actually, in an earlier version of this post, I talked about that other nonstandard way of phrasing past-time counterfactuals, but it was complicating the picture too much. I’ll see if I can find it saved somewhere and put it as a separate post.

  12. interestedparty said

    “If I would have” doesn’t follow the pattern of other conditionals in English. In present simple tense, both clauses use present simple tense, e.g. “If it rains I always take an umbrella.” But if we’re talking about the future, we keep present tense in the if clause and use future in the main clause, as in “If it rains I’ll take an umbrella.” And in “If it rained every day I would kill myself” again, the tenses don’t match. It seems the if clause is always one tense “behind” the main clause, so keeping “If it had rained I would have brought an umbrella” is more consistent in my opinion.

    Related to this is “I wish I would have known earlier” instead of “I wish I had known earlier”.

  13. Tim Cox said

    Oh dear – today:

    “I’m here in the interest of being more neighborly,” Mr. Obama said, alluding to the contentious relationship he has had with the Chamber of Commerce over the past two years. “Maybe if we would have brought over a fruit cake when I first moved in, we would have gotten off on a better foot. But I’m going to make it up.”

  14. dw said

    In my native grammar (British English, in my late 30s, although I’ve lived in the US for over a decade), I can’t think of any circumstances in which I would say “If I would have X-ed”

    Instead I would say “If I had X-ed” or “Had I X-ed”.

    On the good side, this means that there is never any ambiguity when an AmE speaker says “If I would have X-ed”: I just mentally substitute “If I had X-ed”. So it doesn’t bother me much.

  15. Jane said

    No, it just means Obama does not his grammar. Even in the US, that is bad grammar. And since people in power have to play the grammar game, he lost this one.

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