counterfactual conditionals

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Fri Feb 18 18:10:50 UTC 2000

i've been collecting examples of the WOULD-counterfactual for
some time now, but in a very unsystematic way.  these include
not only WOULD HAVE V-psp, but also WOULD V-base ("if you
would sing more often, you'd enjoy it more", even with BE,
as in "if he would be quiet, you'd be able to hear" - these
are invented examples, since i'm away from my data files
right now).  this is a natural and entirely understandable
historical development, replacing a system (for most speakers
these days)
   with counterfactuality marked in different ways in
    the antecedent (by the past tense, as in "if he was
    quiet") and the consequent (by a "past" modal, WOULD
    being the neutral choice, as in "you'd enjoy it more"),
   in such a way that the antecedents are almost always
    ambiguous as between a counterfactual and a factual
    (past) reading,
by a system
   with counterfactuality marked in the same way (by
    a "past" modal, almost always WOULD) in antecedent
    and consequent,
   with the result that the antecedents are usually
    unambiguously counterfactual.

(for conservative speakers who have a morphologically distinct
counterfactual form in the antecedent - "if he were quiet" - this
marking is unambiguous only in the 1st and 3rd singulars for the one
verb BE.  this is not a very perspicuous scheme for marking
counterfactuality and cries out for reshaping almost as much as the
scheme described above.)

in any case, the WOULD-counterfactual provides a uniform and
perspicuous scheme for marking counterfactuality.

i haven't gotten around to doing a literature search on the topic, but
i've been assuming that others had noticed the development of the
WOULD-counterfactual and that there was in fact some literature on it,
probably in American Speech.  does anyone know offhand if there is?

(it's probably too much to hope that the WOULD-counterfactual has
caught the attention of some prescriptive usageists.  but it would
be nice to have its existence attested by exhortations not to
say "if we would have noticed" and "if he would be quiet" and to
say "if we had noticed" and "if he were quiet" instead.  or at
least to have some scandalized observations about the strange things
kids are saying, and writing, these days.)

arnold (zwicky at

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