Conditional perfection

The "conditional perfect" grammatical construction is dropping out of the English language.  It was once standard usage to say, for instance, "If I had worked harder, I would be enjoying a more secure retirement."   I almost never hear that any more, or read it in informal electronic prose, or even the slightly more formal prose contained in the average sports story.  These day, it's more often "If I would have worked harder . . . ."  I was just reading about a Cory Gardner Colorado senate campaign ad and noticed that the reporter rephrased part of it in brackets:
“Mark Udall has voted with President Obama 99 percent of the time,” Gardner said in a new campaign ad released Thursday in which he address the issue head on.  “I just wish that 1 percent [would have] been a vote against Obamacare.”
A nice quip, but what did he say in the original, I wondered?  Had he used the traditional conditional perfect, "I just wish that 1 percent had been a vote . . ."?  Well, sort of: in the video, he says, "I just wish that 1 percent hadda been a vote . . . ." His grammar is a hybrid, like a werewolf caught in mid-transformation.   Even at the halfway point, it sounded so wrong to the reporter's ear that he went to the trouble of "correcting" it to something even less traditional.  I suppose that's when real change occurs in a language:  when the old way of saying something is not only no longer required, but actually sounds wrong enough to correct in print.


Elise said...

I must be old. "Would have worked" sounds wrong to me. Do you know if there is a name for the construct "would have worked"? That is, are we beginning to use another grammatical construction where we have traditionally used the conditional perfect? Or are we simply making something up out of whole cloth and using it as (changing the form of) the conditional perfect?

Texan99 said...

I'd call it a conditional perfect, I guess. It grates on my ears, certainly, when "if I would have" replaces "if I had," but then I'm neither a millennial nor a sportswriter.

Of course, "I would have worked" still sounds like standard English to me when used in its traditional context, "I would have worked at the store if they had been willing to hire me." I just can't personally make a place for "if they woulda hired me," which doesn't have a name yet, because the people who name these things still think it's bad usage. ESL texts, for instance, still warn against it, under the assumption that people learning English want to sound educated rather than like ordinary native speakers.

I put it in the same category as using the past-tense form of a verb in place of the perfect, as in "I had took the beer from the case," which is quite common in speech (say, witnesses in news videos) and is showing up more and more in quotations from the man on the street, or athletes (who are much given to statements about how the game woulda come out if they woulda done something different). Google "if I would have" and you'll see what I mean. Maybe we should call it the "wistful conditional."

I don't think people really like to use the past perfect any more. Instead of "If I had lost you," they're more likely to say "If I lost you I woulda been upset" or "If I woulda lost you I woulda been upset." Maybe "had lost" is going to go the way of the subjunctive, which now survives only in little cubbyholes here and there.

The distinction between "may" and "might" is disappearing, too.

Texan99 said...

I got mixed up there about athletes, between the "I had took" construction and the "if I woulda" construction.

Elise said...

Okay, the "wistful conditional" it is.

I have to say that, "Ah, had I but known" just doesn't have the same impact when rendered as "Gosh, if only I woulda known". :+)

Texan99 said...

"if I woulda knew"

Elise said...

Oh, right - sorry. :+)

E Hines said...

Do you know if there is a name for the construct "would have worked"?

When I was taking junior high English, the name for that construction was "bad grammar." That was in the bad, old days when tenses--even the most esoteric ones--actually were taught.

I hear hadda been a vote.... as an accent more than anything else; although I wouldn't wanna see it in non-dialoginal writing.

What I hear with irritatingly increasing frequency is the use of a present tense construction for any sort of past action, conditional or not: If I'm working harder, I'd be more set now. Mightbe that'll become correct grammar one day.

'Course there are advantages in these evolutions. American English isn't going to become stilted and unable to keep up with new concepts as long as we have no equivalent to l'Académie Française.

Eric Hines

Tom said...

... "if they woulda hired me," which doesn't have a name yet ...

Well, as you point out, it's the conditional perfect but they've thrown a modal (i.e., would) into it.

"If I had worked harder, I would be enjoying a more secure retirement."

Notice the modal shows up in the result of the conditional. We can drop the conditional clause if it's understood, and so now I guess people are forgetting how this works.

E.g.: It would have worked.

That's perfectly understandable in a conversation about my diabolical plot to conquer the world, which I couldn't try for lack of resources. The condition "If we had tried it," is understood and so unstated.

My guess is that the result of a conditional has become confused for the conditional itself in the speaker's mind (which, these days, may well not know the difference).

And yes, I'm going to bring politics into this. Steel yourselves.

Fuzzy grammar (AKA, "we have to respect everyone's use of language, so there is no 'correct' grammar per se, and insisting there is is a white, male, heteronormative, colonialist, elitist, fascist, imperialist, racist attitude") came into vogue in the last few decades, so whacha gonna do?

Now, if you only would have steeled yourselves properly ...

Grim said...

So, 'have' is related to possession, and 'would' to will. "I wish I had worked harder" is actually a kind of present tense -- you're wishing to have something from your past that you don't, in the way you might say: "I wish I had my first car, but I sold it." What you're wishing is that you still should have it, now.

The new form captures something interesting: what you are wishing is that you'd had a better will once of old. 'Would' is related to 'will' in the same way that 'had' is related to 'have.'

And of course, in America at least, it is often the will that is the problem.

"Would that I had worked harder!" That is the most correct way to say it.