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I watched a (Hollywood?) film the other day where a character visiting his just-hospitalised wife (who it seems will actually survive) says "If I would have lost you [I don't know what I'd do]".

I'd always thought this was an error made by non-native speakers (I myself would only expect "If I had lost you"), but there was nothing to suggest that in the movie. Is it a regionalism?

EDIT: Actually, that wasn't true about only expecting "If I had lost you". I'd have been perfectly happy with "If I'd have lost you", so long as I didn't think too hard about what was being elided. I'd usually elide "have" there to just a schwa (neutral vowel) anyway, and think no more about it.

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

I think what has happened is the following:

  1. Most English speakers would say the clause as If I'd lost you (however they might write it), and thus should pronounce it as /ɪfaydlɔstyu/.
  2. But the stressed /-dlɔst-/ syllable in /ɪfaydlɔstyu/ is very hard to pronounce.
  3. The normal result of (1) and (2) is insertion of an epenthetic shwa between /d/ and /l/, separating the cluster and producing /ɪfaydə'lɔstyu/.

I am a native Midwestern US speaker, and although I never say If I would have instead of If I had, in fact I rarely say either, and normally contract to If I'd. And /ɪfaydə'lɔstyu/ sounds perfectly fine as a contraction to me. It does not unpack for me into anything except If I had lost you.

However, grammar school grammar being what it is in the Anglophone world, other people's parsers unpack /ɪfaydə'lɔstyu/ in various ways. Some believe, for instance, that it should (or might) be unpacked as If I would have lost you -- and some even believe that this use of the modal auxiliary would is in fact The Conditional Mood, label and all.

And I know of at least one other case of someone's unpacking it as If I had have lost you, which makes my teeth itch.

Generally what actually gets said is contracted, or otherwise subject to some kind of conversational shortening or fast speech rules. Then it gets written down and improved by scriveners, and those naughty contractions gotta go, leaving imaginative reconstructions behind.

Mutations like this are just one more way that English syntax grows.
Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.

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I also considered "If I'd have lost you" when it came up in the movie. Lost track of the action for a minute or two - but it was a slow movie, so nothing of value was lost. I often insert "have" (frequently elided to 've). If I do that, I always use the contracted 'd for the first verb too. But I cannot tell a lie - if you forced me to "unpack" it, I conceptualise what I'm saying as "If I had have lost you" (sorry about the teeth! :) – FumbleFingers Mar 28 '12 at 0:32
"I am a native Midwestern US speaker, and although I WOULD never say ..." – Blessed Geek Mar 28 '12 at 1:44
I am a professional English syntactician who is a native speaker of Midwestern US English, and who pays close attention to how he uses language. And has been doing so for over half a century. And who doesn't ever say that, though he says lotsa vother stuff. That's all. – John Lawler Mar 28 '12 at 2:47
It's a matter of whether one perceives the shwa as phonological -- inserted to break up an initial cluster, like Canute for Knut, or whether it is perceived as being the remains of some auxiliary verb, in which case one has to reconstruct it from fossil evidence. – John Lawler Mar 28 '12 at 3:36
Other minds, other voices, other grammars. Everybody makes up their own language, and then we spend the rest of our lives trying to pass as "English speakers". With varying degrees of success and amusement. – John Lawler Mar 28 '12 at 14:34

The use of "would have" in place of "had" seems awkwark to me as in, "If I WOULD HAVE gone home, things might be better." "If I HAD gone home, things would be better" sounds right to me. No research to back this up.

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