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.


3 Answers 3


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 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. Mar 28, 2012 at 2:47
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    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. Mar 28, 2012 at 3:36
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    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. Mar 28, 2012 at 14:34
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    I would say that, but mobiles (cell phones) are different from girlfriends. May 25, 2013 at 18:05
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    I'm in the Midwestern US as well, and I hear people say "If you would have…" pretty frequently, with the word "would" fully pronounced: /ˌɪfjəˈwʊdə/. Apr 13, 2014 at 17:38

Of course, there is not a clear question here, only an implied question. I would like to answer not based on what is the most grammatically correct (which is sometimes a ridiculous splitting of hairs) but on what might work the best for a particular situation.

My protagonist saves a life. The thought of losing this person is very emotional, very highly charged. For that reason, it makes sense to have the statement happen as quickly and as lightly as it can be said, to not deepen the heaviness of the possibility of losing them.

With that in mind, I used this:

"If I'd lost you last night …"

It is a way of saying the thought quickly and lightly and still conveying the thought. It has a nice pace that fits the rhythm of fiction dialog better than 'If I would have …', and prevents the unpacking of (saints preserve us) 'If I had have …'. Also, if the reader wants to infer 'would' rather than 'had' to fit more with their own sensibilities of understanding, they have that option based on the contraction. If they want to insert an anaptyctic schwa as they mentally read it, they can also do that.

So my point is that context can influence what works best, regardless of what your Creative Writing teacher might say as she refuses to look up over her half-glasses in reply. Every situation is a separate situation.


The three most common conditional sentences in English are: 1] If I go home, I will be in time for tea. 2] If I went home, I would be in time for tea. 3] If I had gone home, I would have been in time for tea.

The first leaves it open. You may or may not go home but that's the choice. The second implies that you may not go home, but if you did, you would be in time for tea. Still a choice. The last implies that you missed your opportunity: you didn't go home. Too bad! No tea!

Saying or writing 'would' in the first part of the conditional e.g. 'If I would go go home, I will be in time for tea' is wrong, I think, unless there is an idea of willingness in the condition, which the above examples do not contain.

French, Italian [and Latin] do it slightly differently which maybe is where the confusion arises.

  • Please add some references to bolster your answer. Have a look at the help center to find out about what this site considers good answers.
    – Helmar
    Dec 6, 2016 at 9:35
  • Ah, not a good enough answer for this site! Oh dear! Well, what can I say to bolster my answer ? My understanding is that 'bolster' is another name for bulky padding rather than cogent references.....As for references, I don't have them, Helmar, just a life long interest in languages. I learnt Ancient Greek and Latin at school and maintained my interest in adult life. More recently, about twenty years ago, I learnt Italian and French and now enjoy the challenge of translating French and Italian novels into good English. Dec 6, 2016 at 11:55
  • The OP is a native speaker and quite aware of these textbook patterns, which are literally that. They represent paradigms. But native speakers regularly construct a much wider variety of grammatically correct conditional sentences. There are dozens of possibilities. The use of 'would' in the if-clause is, to my knowledge, something done by certain speakers of American English. It is not done as far as I know, by speakers of British English. Also, if I recall correctly, the OP is a native speaker of British English. Dec 6, 2016 at 15:12
  • @Alan. Thanks. Here in Australia, use of 'would' in the first part of a conditional sentence is quite common. I have thought it was because so many Australians had a relatively recent migrant background where English was their second language and they were following European paradigms but am not sure now. As an English migrant to Australia, I am still struck by how many people say 'haitch' instead of 'aitch', at all levels of education. Dec 6, 2016 at 22:31
  • @Alan ...Many put this down to being taught by Irish Catholic nuns. Irish immigration into Australia was quite huge at the turn of the previous century and there has always been a very strong Catholic private school system paralleling that of the State. Dec 6, 2016 at 22:48

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