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I just saw this sentence on cnn:

Experts believe if Friday's test would have been fired on a flatter, standard trajectory, it could have threatened cities like Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago.

I expected this:

Experts believe if Friday's test had been fired on a flatter, standard trajectory, it could have threatened cities like Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago.

So what is the difference between these two sentences in terms of meaning and grammar?

Thanks in advance

  • I suggest "Experts believe if Friday's test could have been fired on a flatter, standard trajectory, it would have threatened cities like Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago" – Weather Vane Jul 31 '17 at 20:23
  • There is the same distortion in French: "Si j'aurais su" instead of "Si j'avais su", je ne serais pas venu" : "If I would have known I would not have come." Laziness is everywhere :-) – Baiwir Jul 31 '17 at 23:04
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    @Weather Vane You're suggesting a very different meaning from that intended. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 31 '17 at 23:16
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This is an American regionalism that seems to be slowly spreading.

Here is a question/answer on it from Grammerly, which speculates that it will become widely accepted sometime in the not-too-distant future.

It's not terribly uncommon in the U.S., it's wrong in standard English, and it really annoys some people. The right way to say this would be had been, as you surmise:

Experts believe if Friday's test had been fired on a flatter, standard trajectory, it could have threatened cities like Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago.

But if you listen to Americans, you'll run into would have been fairly often, and if the speaker comes from a region where it's used, you might have a hard time convincing them that it's incorrect.

  • Jane Straus wasn't a fan. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 31 '17 at 23:14
  • @Edwin: Yup. To older speakers, this probably sounds a bit like split infinitives sounded to older speakers back in the 1850s—a dreadful abomination committed against the English language by the younger generations. – Peter Shor Jul 31 '17 at 23:55
  • Can you provide source for "it's wrong in standard English?" Sounds fine to me. Clearly you're wrong about it becoming accepted as it is already extremely widely accepted. – I wrestled a bear once. Aug 2 '17 at 10:53
  • Nevermind. Other answer explained what you failed to. – I wrestled a bear once. Aug 2 '17 at 10:55
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    @Iwrestledabearonce: This Ngram shows that I wish it would have it is still quite rare in comparison to the "correct" form, I wish it had. But you can see that in the U.S., it's being used more and more frequently. Not so much in the U.K. – Peter Shor Aug 2 '17 at 11:09
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When talking about something in the past that didn't happen, you use the past perfect tense in the if clause (...if Friday's test had been...) and the conditional perfect in the then clause (...it would have threatened...).

CNN used the conditional perfect tense in the if clause, which is incorrect. The correct use of the conditional perfect tense is when it's used in the then clause :

Experts believe cities like Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago would have been threatened if Friday's test had been fired on a flatter, standard trajectory

OR (what you expected)

Experts believe if Friday's test had been fired on a flatter, standard trajectory, [then] it would have threatened cities like Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago.

If I Would Have... vs. If I Had...

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    Why would and not could? They're both grammatical, although they mean slightly different things. And could was the original wording. – Peter Shor Jul 31 '17 at 23:51
  • +1 you're right, i had my could(s) and would(s) switched around and could was the original wording. – chornge Aug 2 '17 at 12:03
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    It's not really useful in these kind of questions to say something is "correct" or "incorrect." If you're writing your dissertation you should avoid this construction, I suppose, but using the "correct" form in conversation often sounds needlessly stilted to my ears. – Casey Aug 9 '17 at 3:13
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    Ironically, the existence of scolding articles about this form is a testament to its widespread use. – Casey Aug 9 '17 at 3:14

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