Bad English grammar: broken conditionals

A detailed look at wrongly constructed conditional structures in spoken English.

The term conditional refers, quite sensibly, to a grammatical structure in which a statement is made about a certain condition. For example, the sentence

“If I am going to be late, I will let you know by telephone."

contains a conditional clause, the one beginning with “if".

However, when the condition is in the future, or all options are open, the main clause is in a normal tense, such as the future tense in “I will let you know" above. The tricky construction, the one very many people consistently get wrong, is the hypothetical conditional, characterized by being either against somebody's expectations (if in the future) or counter-factual, if in the past. It is these that require the conditional form of verbs, which exists in (say) French as a separate verb conjugation, exactly like another tense, but in English is implemented as a specific auxiliary verb structure with “would” which is technically called a modal verb; and it is these that so many people screw up. Examples of the future tense form:

“If I thought you were lying to me, I would kill you."
“If the Conservative and Labour parties had equal numbers of seats in the Commons, the Lib-Dems would hold the balance of power."

Note that, although the time being discussed is at some point in the future, the verb in the conditional clause is in a simple past tense (“I thought", “the ... parties had")

But now let us look closely at some examples of the counter-factual past:

“If you had listened to me, you would have stocked up on sandbags."
“If Hitler had been born in Russia, World War 2 would never have happened.”

Note now that the hypothetical, counterfactual events (which did not happen) would have happened in the past if at all, but that the verbs in the conditonal clauses are now in the pluperfect tense (“you had listened", “Hitler had been born"). Outside of this conditional construction, the pluperfect is about placing an event earlier in time than some other event that is also in the past, as in:

“Before you got up this morning, I had already been working for three hours."

The contructions with “would" are the English conditional “tense", though it is more of a mood (having to do with factuality or force) than a tense (having to do solely with time) and we have the concept of modal verbs. In French these are rendered with the conditional conjugation.

Note that neither in English nor in French does the verb in the conditional clause have a conditional form; it is the main verb that has the conditional form.

There are two ways in which imperfectly educated people fail to deliver conditional constructions correctly, on both sides of the Atlantic. THe first stage, apparently typical of people with a non-anglophone background, is to put the conditional tense in the conditional clause:

“If you would have listened to me, you would have stocked up on sandbags."
“If Hitler would have been born in Russia, World War 2 would never have happened."

The second stage builds on the first. Having introduced “would" in the “if" clause as well as in the main clause, they proceed to elide it, reducing it to its last consonant, and so the same with “have":

“If you'd've listened to me, you would have stocked up on sandbags."

They then listen to themselves, mistake “'ve" for “of", and say quite distinctly, as it were speaking, more distinctly again but with a wrong idea of what the words are:

“If you'd of listened to me, you would have stocked up on sandbags."

It is this totally misbegotten “of" that stands out in the final result. It is very difficult to disabuse speakers who talk like this of their erroneous habit, probably because i has taken three stages, two of them erroneous leaps (as it were) to get from “If you had done" to “if you'd of done".