Coulda, Woulda, Shouldn't

Rob Kyff on

"If you would have told UConn basketball coach Dan Hurley six years ago that the LA Lakers would one day offer him a contract worth $70 million, he would have laughed in your face."

When I recently spotted this sentence, I wanted to don a Husky uniform, drive the base line and make two points:

Point No. 1: More and more people are substituting "would have" for "had" in the past perfect tense of conditional clauses.

Point No. 2: Don't do that.

Our desire to use "would have" in place of "had" in conditional clauses is understandable. After all, we often use "could have," "would have" and "should have" when we're expressing situations contrary to fact, e.g., I could have been a contender; I would have enjoyed it; I should have stayed in bed.

But in constructions such as, "if you would have told him," the "if" already denotes the contrary-to-fact situation, so "would have" is as redundant as a flashlight on the sun. Why gunk up your sentence with "would have" when a simple "had" will do the job?

This impulse to double knot the conditional also leads us to insert an unnecessary "have" (and its contracted form "-'ve") in constructions where "had" is sufficient, e.g., If I had've been there (If I had been there); If we had've known you were coming (If we had known); If he would have not have seen us (If he had not seen us).

Five of these sentences contain redundant "would haves" and "haves." Can you spot them?


1. If we would have been warned about the tarantulas, we would not have opened the box. 2. If Superman had not have been there, Lois would have died. 3. If I could have sold you a timeshare, I would have. 4. If I would've sold you a timeshare, I would've received a huge commission.

5. If we would have had dynamite, we would have used it. 6. If Superman had not been there, they would all be dead. 7. If they would have had arrived sooner, we would already be finished. 8. If they could have arrived sooner, they would have.

Answers: 1. If we had been warned 2. If Superman had not been there 3. correct 4. If I had sold you 5. If we had had dynamite 6. correct 7. If they had arrived sooner 8. correct

By the way, some linguistic purists insist that the phrase "would have liked" be followed by the present-tense infinitive, not a past-tense infinitive. Thus, "I would have liked to have seen the report," should be "I would have liked to see the report."

I would have liked to be present when they concocted this fussy rule, but so "be" it.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2024 Creators Syndicate Inc.



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