Grammar Wednesday

Mrs. Chili is stumped, class, and I’m looking for some clarification.

The other night, I was watching football on television, as I am prone to do this time of year. I’m constantly amazed by John Madden (and not in a good way, either). Here’s a man who makes his living talking – describing people and actions to a listening public. There are SO many other, more eloquent announcers on the air that it astounds me that this man still has a job. Seriously; the guy sounds like a moron.

Anyway, I was sitting there watching the game – it’s pre-season, so I don’t really remember who was playing; I think it was New Orleans and Kansas City – when a player missed a catch in the flat on a third down seconds before half time. Madden comes out with something like this:

Now, if he would have caught that, we’d have a different game here!

First of all, DUH. One of the things that annoys me about this man is his brilliant ability to point out the patently obvious. Second, I’m not sure that the tense he used makes any sense in the way he used it, but I can’t articulate why I feel that way.

It’s the would have caught that made me twitch. That just seems wrong to me, but I can’t find anything in my references to tell me why it’s wrong. Would one of my linguist friends – or someone who paid more attention during the classes where verb tenses were taught – help me out, please?



Filed under General Griping, Grammar, popular culture

19 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. I dunno. Me no like football.

    I think what he’s most guilty of is just plain ol’ verbosity. Why use one word when you can use three or four? Doesn’t this say the same thing, just more concisely:

    If he had caught that ball, we would have a different game now.

    Of course, this is the copy editor in me, not the linguist. I’m sure there are very elaborate rules governing tenses for a hypothetical past event and a related hypothetical present state.

    When it comes to grammar, I tend to rank on a five-point scale:

    1) Beautiful language enhances the message it’s communicating
    2) Clear, comprehensible communication
    3) Grammatically incorrect or errors of style, yet understandable
    4) Grammatically incorrect and unclear
    5) Are you drunk? I have no idea what you’re talking about…

    Madden probably falls in zones 3 and 4…

  2. I loathe many pro announcers, Madden included. I cannot stand Joe Theisman either. Fox has Joe Morgan who announces their weekly national baseball game. When it is the Braves playing, I have to turn the sound off. He is awful.

  3. POTUS used DRUG as the past tense of DRAG on national TV this week so, really, anyone can get a job in public speaking in this country.

    It’s got to have something to do with mixing tenses, doesn’t it? Michael’s example seems the only way to make the sentence comprehensible: “If he had caught that ball, we would have a different game now.” The first bit is past tense because it already happened and the second bit is…uh present subjunctive, er present modified, oh god I don’t know but it’s definitely present because the first action is over and the second is about right this second. With “would have caught” (and, as an aside, can we just be glad he didn’t write it since he probably would have written “would of”) aren’t you mixing the past tense of “caught” with the future tense of “would have”?

  4. Well, see, this is what I’m not sure of….

    Would have indicates, to me, a desire or an intention that wasn’t fulfilled because something else intervened to prevent it. “I would have arrived on time, but I got caught behind a parade,” for example. I could live with Madden (or anyone else) saying “He would have caught the ball if he hadn’t been BODY SLAMMED by the defender seconds before,” or something to that effect. That says that he had the intention and the ability to do something, but that he was prevented by outside forces.

    That’s not, however, what Madden said.

    My problem is that I can find neither the construction “would have” nor (obviously) a deconstruction of it in any of my grammar texts, so I can’t articulate what, exactly, its function is in a sentence. It SEEMS subjunctive to me, but I can’t find anything to back myself up on that assumption.

  5. Excellent post, Mrs. Chili! I, like you and many others, it seems, cannot STAND John “BOOM” Madden! I will refrain from watching a football game, because that seems all he knows how to announce, if Madden in an announcer.

    But again, like you, I cannot remember where there is a rule about “could have.” It’s a bit of a conundrum for me, but I feel that you make your point very clearly and well.

    Madden needs to be “sacked.”

    I look forward to reading your blog often.


  6. I agree with you, Mark, and would like to add that someone needs to take the damned “coaches’ clicker” out of his hands. While they’re at it, take away the markers that write on the screens, too.

    Is it just me being nostalgic, or does anyone else miss the Gifford/Dierdorf/Michaels team? I really LIKE Al Michaels, and thought the three of them struck a nice balance…

  7. From The American Heritage Book of English Usage (
    “would have for had. In spoken English, there is a growing tendency to use would have in place of the subjunctive had in contrary-to-fact clauses, such as If she would have (instead of if she had) only listened to me, this would never have happened. But this usage is still widely considered an error in writing. Only 14 percent of the Usage Panel accepts it in the previously cited sentence, and a similar amount—but 16 percent—accepts it in the sentence I wish you would have told me about this sooner.

    It seems to me like a simple regularizing of the verb forms in both clauses.

  8. In fact, I think this regularization is what German does, if I remember my German correctly:
    Wenn ich Zeit hätte, dann ginge ich kaufen.
    If I had time, I would go shopping.
    Where the two verbs “hätte” and “ginge” are in the same form.

  9. Mrs. Chili is stumped? Ah, but at least you have a wonderful coterie of grammar mavens to come to your rescue. I think John’s last example in German is perfect! That’s what we need in speaking and writing: consistency in our tenses. Otherwise we tense up. Witness what happened to you!

  10. bk2nocal

    Okay, I’m going to have to be the lone holdout and say that I like John Madden. I find him to be endearing. I think his total enthusiasm and obvious love of the game can let me see past some of his communication weaknesses. I also think that his is not the job designed for the professionally trained broadcaster, but for the enthusiastic insider. He is not the anchor on Sportscenter – just an ex-football coach who now provides “color” for pro football games. Sorry for playing the contrarian!

  11. Bkenocal, don’t EVER apologize for having a contrary opinion here! One of the reasons I have this forum in the first place is so that I get to hear a wide range of voices! I WANT there to be debate – good natured and well mannered debate – but debate nonetheless. That’s how we learn.

    Your perspective on the man DOES soften my opinion of him a little bit – and I’ll think of you and cut the guy a little more slack the next time he makes me roll my eyes – but I think I’ll still find his “enthusiasm” to be a bit grating…

  12. Jamie

    I’ll go out on a limb here, and guess that what you probably HEARD was “would OF caught” – and THAT is the reason it was most Grating to your ears.

  13. I’ve refrained from adding to this thread thus far, as I probably can’t accurately describe my intuitions about this, and I certainly don’t have any real knowledge. But here goes.

    I get the sense that, in an if-then construction, the counterfactual would have is compatible with the necessary condition, not the sufficient condition, that is, it goes with the then, not the if. Exactly why I should think that’s the case, I don’t know, but it may have something to do with pragmatic/real world constraints on linguistic form. The very concept encoded by if (s/he) would have (where it would have been meant, as opposed to some regularisation of verb forms, as John points out), is I think, an impossible real-world scenario.

    However, I’m really clutching at straws here and have no way to formalise this. But my intuition says that if [noun] would have… then [noun] would have… is awkward and I much prefer if [noun] had… then [noun] would have….

  14. Siobhan Curious

    Ok, here goes. There are three forms of the conditional in English:

    true in the present/future:
    If I catch it, it is [always true]/will be [possibly true in the future] a different game.

    untrue in the present/future:
    If I caught it, it would be a different game.
    [that is, if I was a good football player and regularly caught the ball, my team’s game would regularly be different]

    untrue in the past [applicable to this case]:
    If I had caught the ball, it would have been a different game.

    The insertion of “would” into the “if” clause, as in “if I would have caught it,” is wrong simply because it is an incorrect, although common, formation of the past conditional. It drives me CRAZY, but it seems it’s a losing battle – not only football commentators but news announcers and English teachers use it more and more.

  15. Siobhan Curious

    Sorry, my comment on the second conditional should read, “If I WERE a good football player.” That’s humbling. Let he who is without sin etc. …

  16. Yeah, yeah, Siobhan; don’t worry about it. I ALWAYS find errors like that after I hit the damned “submit” button. There’s no judgment from here, I assure you.

    I KNOW it’s wrong, but I still can’t find anything in the (many) grammar and style manuals I have to identify WHY it’s wrong, and I wasn’t able to put it as succinctly as you did here. You brought me a long way toward being able to articulate this – both for myself and for others. Thanks for that.

  17. Siobhan Curious

    I would heartily recommend Betty Schrampfer Azar’s “Understanding and Using English Grammar.” It’s an advanced ESL grammar textbook that I taught with for years. The explanation I gave above was adapted from her chapter on the conditional. Although the book is also full of grammar exercises, her charts and explanations of English grammatical conventions are so succinct and clear that it makes for an excellent reference book. Everything I know about teaching English grammar, I learned from her.

  18. Siobhan, some sources acknowledge that “if I were” and “if I was” are both standard in counterfactual clauses.

    I hear that A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar by Rodney Huddleston (Author), Geoffrey K. Pullum (Author) is very good. It’s based on the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, the most comprehensive grammar available AIUI.

  19. The problem is the word “if”. It is perfectly okay to say “I would have caught that.” When you use the word “if” it becomes subjunctive and therefore “would have” becomes “had”. The correct usage would be, “Now, if he had caught that, we’d have a different game here.”

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