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In the original version of the nursery rhyme, The Wise Men of Gotham, the word 'had' is used in the main clause of a sentence where it seems modern English would commonly use 'would have'. The full rhyme is:

Three wise men of Gotham,
They went to sea in a bowl,
And if the bowl had been stronger
My song had been longer.

What is the grammatical tense, and semantic sense, of the second 'had' in the rhyme?

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The sense is counterfactual past conditional. The poem expresses this sense using a tense combination which is no longer standard:

"if (past perfect subjunctive), [then] (past perfect subjunctive)"
if the bowl had been stronger, my song had been longer

In modern English, this sense is normally expressed by

"if (past perfect   subjunctive), [then] (conditional perfect)"
if the bowl had been stronger, my song would have been longer

or in some dialects

"if (conditional perfect), [then] (conditional perfect)"
if the bowl would have been stronger, my song would have been longer

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This is the subjunctive tense. It's used when considering "might-have-beens".

Here, the meaning is that "It ended because the bowl was too weak and failed." (where "it" means any and all of the song, the voyage, and the three men)

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  • Souldn't it be "if the bowl had been stronger, my song would have been longer" then? Jun 18 '11 at 12:58
  • @Cyril Yes, normally it would be so. But that's poetry, grammar sometimes gets ignored here.
    – Philoto
    Jun 18 '11 at 13:15
  • @Cyril: No, as written it's actually slighter more correct. Parallelism leads to either "Had the bowl been stronger, then my song had been longer." (Or with different word order, "then had my song been longer") or "If the bowl would have been stronger, then my song would have been longer." There's nothing wrong with your version, it isn't required to respect parallelism, but the wording in the song is just fine and parallel as well.
    – Ben Voigt
    Jun 18 '11 at 13:24

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