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I have been taught to use the if I had form in conditional clauses referring to the past:

If the president had asked me, I would have told him the same thing.

As far as I can tell though, the would have construct is sometimes used in conditional clauses as well, so it wouldn't be incorrect to say:

If the president would have asked me, I would have told him the same thing.

What is the difference between the two and the proper use of the latter?

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3 Answers 3

The first sentence is the right one. The only other correct equivalent that I know for the first one is " Had the President asked me, I would have told him the same thing".

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The second example is wrong - but, sadly, is frequently heard nowadays.

The first example is correct.

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You can buy a 1993 paper on this exact topic for $15. It argues that “if he would have” was at that time entering the mainstream. It's true that the phrase gets 185 million Google hits today. Here's one:

Shaq said, if he would have not fell asleep the night biggie got hit up, maybe he could have saved his life.

This is definitely non-standard. It seems like it might be dialect, not a typo or a random mental slip.


Say we simplify these a little bit:

If the president asks me, I will tell him the same thing. (correct)

If the president will ask me, I will tell him the same thing. (wrong)

It seems to me that conditionals have a slightly different grammatical “frame of reference”. In the correct sentence, even though both clauses are set at the same point in time in the same hypothetical, they have to use different auxiliary verbs to express it.

Careful, it's very subtle:

If that fixes the problem, I will do it. (correct)

If that will fix the problem, I will do it. (also correct! wtf?)

Here the two sentences have two different meanings. The will in will fix is all right because it actually refers to future time, a time further in the future than the will in I will do it. Similarly:

If that would have fixed it, I would have done it. (correct)

To sum up: English auxiliary verbs, whaddaya gonna do.


Now in a content clause—say, one that functions as the direct object of a verb like ask—the pattern if X would have is fine:

They asked if I would have done the same. (correct)

This isn't a conditional at all.

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I think "If that would have fixed it, I would have done it." bears some more explaining, because it's an interesting kind of example. Here's another one: "If he would have come, I would have asked him to" (but I didn't ask him to come as there was no point). "If he had come, I would have asked him to" (but I didn't ask him to do some unspecified thing because he didn't come). In the former example, you're describing a past event where you're looking forward to the future (will he come?), whereas in the latter you're describing a past event at the time (has he come?) –  Jez Sep 10 '12 at 21:14

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