“If he had have went”…

Oh dear, it doesn’t get any better, does it? “If he had have went“, which was actually overheard in speech (so conceivably may even have been intended to be written “if he had of went“), contains one outright grammatical error, and one non-standard (not strictly wrong) verb form.

Let us start with the latter. To clarify, the use of “went” as the past participle, widely discussed in these pieces, is non-standard but actually grammatically defensible – in the sense that it is widely used, a natural progression, and in fact perfectly logical.

It is widely used – in that almost everyone I know uses it including government ministers, chief executives and solicitors.

It is a natural progression – in that it is common for the preterite and past participle forms to merge (as previously discussed).

It is logical – in that “went” was originally both the preterite and past participle of “wend“, so why would it not be so adopted for “go“?

However, a key point here is that “went” does not replace “gone” in all contexts. In fact, there is a new distinction between its use as part of the verb phrase, and its use as a standalone adjective – one sometimes made with other verbs.

Consider the Class II strong verb “strike“. Class II verbs are tricky because they vary somewhat – they include “choose-chose-chosen“; “fly-flew-flown” (but also “show-shew/showed-shown/ed”?); “write-wrote-written” and “strike-struck-struck/stricken“. Stricken? Well yes – as in “grief-stricken“. Here, the adjective (at least in the common phrase) has remained “stricken“, but common usage, even in Standard English, has shifted the participle used in verb phrases into line with the preterite as “struck“. 

I would suggest the same thing is happening with “went” versus “gone“, and thus predict “went” will be regarded as Standard in verb phrases a century from now – but not as an adjective. Thus we will have “he has went up the stairs“, but “foregone conclusion“, “bygones be bygones” and even “She’s gone!” (not “She’s went! – as this is regarded as an adjective expressing the status of disappearance rather than a verb expressing movement).

However, what about the former – “if he had have“? There’s an unnecessarily and linguistically illogical duplication there – a confusion formed by a combination perhaps of uncertainty over a common abbreviated form (“he’d“) and in fact a clash between Standard American and Standard British. American here has “if he would have“, British has simply “if he had” – either is perfectly logical.

In older forms of English (and in contemporary German, albeit with an umlaut used for distinction), the past form could double-up as the conditional with some common verbs, most obviously “to have”. Thus the form “had” could be used either has a past (“I had a house” – modern German “Ich hatte ein Haus”) or as a conditional (now usually “I would have a house” – modern German ich hätte ein Haus”). The slight confusion is that “have” is also an auxiliary verb often used to refer to things which have happened (strictly this is a present tense indicating aspect of something completed, but in practice most people regard it as past) – thus “I had seen him” (German “Ich hatte ihn gesehen”) versus “I would have seen him” (German “Ich hätte ihn gesehen”).

The distinction is obvious. However, when used in conditional clauses (almost always starting “if…”), British Standard usage still allows “had” as the conditional (or perhaps conjunctive) form – thus British “If I had seen him” versus American “If I would have seen him” (German “Wenn ich ihn gesehen hätte”). Either the British or the American is perfectly logical and consistent – what is inconsistent is combining them to the duplicated *”If I had have seen him” (which effectively means “If I would have have seen him” – an obvious nonsense). This is not a “pluperfect” form either – logically, that would be “If I had had seen him”.

This serves again to mark the clear distinction between usage which is grammatically wrong on one hand (“If he had have”), and usage which is grammatically non-standard but otherwise widely used, logical and consistent on the other (“have went”). There is too much talk of “wrong grammar” and “bad grammar” to refer to perfectly consistent developments which are not (yet) standard; but that does not mean there is no such thing as “wrong grammar” – there is, but it is clearly defined and distinguished from “non-standard”.

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2 thoughts on ““If he had have went”…

  1. Scots Anorak says:

    As far as I’m aware, “If I would have seen him” is actually non-standard American, i.e. something that makes an appearance in the speech of the US but that is denigrated in writing. It’s explicable as false analysis of the contraction “I’d”, but there may also be an influence of German and, to a lesser extent, Yiddish, which as you know is very similar.

  2. […] what about English? I touched on it in the second half of this article, which I recommend you read. Ahem, see what I did there? “Read” is in fact subjunctive […]

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