Trump's future conditional head-scratcher

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After Pope Francis suggested that Donald Trump's plan to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border makes him not-so-Christian, Trump fired back with a written statement that begins with a remarkable pile-up of conditionals:

If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS's ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been President because this would not have happened. ISIS would have been eradicated unlike what is happening now with our all talk, no action politicians.

All of those would haves! On Twitter, @vykromond asks if Language Loggers have any insights into "the possibly unprecedented 'quadruple conditional' of the first sentence." Here's my tentative analysis.

Broadly speaking, we're dealing with the "future conditional" here. As a predictive conditional sentence, Trump's opening line uses the so-called "first conditional" pattern, expressing the condition with a present-tense verb (is attacked) in the antecedent clause. But in that pattern, the result of the condition is typically expressed in the consequent clause with a future construction using will. In this case, we might also consider the future perfect will have, because the wishing and praying of the Pope will have already happened by the time the condition (ISIS attacking the Vatican) is met. And we might expect a simple past (Trump was President) or past perfect (Trump had been president) to express what the Pope will have wished/prayed for. So:

Antecedent clause: If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS…

Consequent clause: the Pope will have wished and prayed that Trump was (or had been) President…

But Trump instead uses would have for both verbs there, along with the more typical would have in the counterfactual "because this would not have happened." I don't think this is so particular to Trump, actually — I'd call it part of a more general extension of would have, especially in conversational English, to cover all sorts of conditional constructions that traditionally might have involved subjunctive forms. (There was some discussion of this trend in an ADS-L thread in 2013, with commentary from Jonathan Lighter, Larry Horn, and Arnold Zwicky.)

On The New Yorker's Page Turner blog, Andrew Boynton gives Trump's statement a thorough copy-editing. In the edited version, Trump's first sentence becomes:

Should the Islamic State ever attack the Vatican, which, as everyone knows, is Isis's ultimate trophy, the Pope will wish that Donald Trump had been President, because such an attack would not have happened.

That's close to what I was thinking, except Boynton uses the future will wish instead of the future perfect will have wished.

Beyond the peculiarities of the Trumpian future conditional, the opening sentence is striking in other ways. To follow its logic, the sentence requires imagining two potential futures:

  1. a future in which Trump does not become president, ISIS attacks the Vatican, and the Pope wishes Trump had in fact become President; and
  2. a future in which Trump becomes president, the Vatican is not attacked, and then the Pope needn't have wished for anything.

Not only that, the Pope in Future #1 has to imagine what it would be like to be the Pope in Future #2!

Even more weirdly, by introducing the antecedent clause with if and when, Trump makes it sound like Future #1 is assured. So is he in fact predicting his own non-election and an ISIS attack on the Vatican? Seems unlikely. I think Trump's if and when isn't supposed to set up all of Future #1 as a fait accompli, but is instead intended to suggest that the bad stuff in Future #1 (ISIS attacks the Vatican, the Pope is regretful) would follow as a natural and necessary consequence of the temporal first step in that future course (Trump isn't elected).

With these battling future visions, perhaps the sentence is best thought of as a kind of speculative fiction that puts you in the possible world where Trump isn't elected and then lets you go back and change it — something like killing Baby Hitler. But I'm going to give up now, because this is making my head hurt almost as much as when I watched Inception.


  1. Adrian Bailey said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 5:55 am

    Until recently the construction in "prayed that Donald Trump would have been President" seemed very foreign (i.e. American!) indeed, but it's crept into British English and now you hear it here all the time. English verb forms are difficult for foreigners, so I suppose it's ineveitable that the language is simplifying, even if it results in ugly (and logic-defying) repetition like in the Trump statement.

    [(myl) Could you be more specific about what seems foreign to you? Is it just using "would have been" in the sentential complement of a past-tense propositional attitude verb with irrealis or counterfactual force? If so, I'm surprised, since this seems to have been quite normal among British writers for several hundred years, e.g.

    'How do you, Pamela?' said he, and saluted me, with a little more formality than I could well bear. 'I expected, my dear, that you would have been here to dinner.' [Samuel Richardson, Pamela, 1740]

    I imagined indeed, that you would have been cloy'd and tired with the uniformity of adventures and expressions, … [John Cleland, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, 1749]

    "Mare!" exclaimed the incorrigible punster, delighted with my mistake: "I thought that you would have been better acquainted with your propria quae maribus. " [Edward Bulwer Lytton, Pelham, 1828]

    "Well, Jobson," exclaims another member of the committee with a sigh, "who could have supposed that you would have been an enemy!" [Benjamin Disraeli, Coningsby, 1844]

    etc. etc.]

  2. Alan Connor said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 5:58 am

    And what if… "If and when" is read as "If (or rather, when)"?

  3. Riikka said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 6:22 am

    This is a very legible quote for a Finn. In Finnish both parts of a conditional "if it didn't rain, I would go out" are expressed with the same marker, -isi-. "Jos ei sataISI, menISIn ulos." This, of course, leads to just Trump-y kinds of sentences among the local school kids' essays.

    I didn't know Trump had failed English as a foreign language in Finland, though.

  4. Levantine said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 7:08 am

    Adrian Bailey, I'm British, and I don't understand you either. I get quite embarrassed when fellow Brits, in order to explain something in English they happen to dislike, blame Americans for dumbing the language down. This is lazy and unfounded snobbery, and usually based on something imagined rather than substantiated (as myl's comment demonstrates in this case).

  5. Simon Wright said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 7:14 am

    I (BrE) think that it wouldn’t occur to the Pope to wish that Trump had been elected until after the Vatican had been attacked. So I agree with Boynton’s use of will wish.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 9:28 am

    This post and the appended comments are giving me so many belly laughs this morning, especially when I contemplate the "head-scratcher" in the title in light of Trump's perpetual tousle (like Dennis the Menace's hair).

  7. Dan Schmidt said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 9:32 am

    "Would have / would have" is indeed quite common these days. I think I first started noticing it used from a position of relative linguistic authority in sports broadcasts (e.g., "If Jones would have stolen second base on the previous pitch, he would have scored on that single"). It feels like the use of it has increased in my lifetime, though perhaps it's confirmation bias and I am just getting more crotchety.

  8. George said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 10:01 am

    As the French say, "Si j'aurais su, j'aurais pas venu !"

  9. Adrian Bailey said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 10:19 am

    Levantine: I mean that in that position I would have expected to see "prayed that Donald Trump had been President", just as Prof Liberman suggested as a possibility in his original piece, but which doesn't work in the examples he gives in reply to my comment. ymmv but it's common now to hear people say things like "If I would have been manager of Chelsea" rather than "if I had been manager". It is possible that this usage is spreading from a UK regional dialect, I admit, but I associate with US English.

  10. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 10:27 am

    I'm with Levantine on this one. The English have a tendency to identify usages that sound subjectively different from our own as 1) ungrammatical and 2) American. It also combines readily with the Recency Illusion and the Frequency Illusion. And there's a parallel tendency to regard usages that really are generally AmE, like gotten, as recent and wrong.

    That said, I do suspect Adrian Bailey is right that conditional constructions, and the English verb phrase (not verb forms) in general, are hard to learn correctly. My only data point though is my mother-in-law, whose English seems to me essentially flawless except for conditional clauses, which are all over the place, with would appearing where it shouldn't and not appearing where it should.

    I also read the CGEL section on the Perfect tense ( / aspect / phase / something else?) a couple of years ago – three times! – and still didn't fully understand the various temporal orientations involved. If I wasn't a native speaker I don't think I'd be able to produce it consistently grammatically.

  11. David L said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 10:49 am

    I partly agree with Adrian Bailey, although the Trump example is so convoluted that it's hard to know how best to render it.

    I well remember, years ago when I was still living in England, that a visiting American once said to me "I wish you wouldn't have done that." (I'm not going to say what it was that he wished I wouldn't have done).

    That struck me as a strange construction. I would have said "I wish you hadn't done that." I still think of this as an example of a transatlantic difference, but since I don't live in the UK anymore I can't say anything about current usage over there.

  12. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 11:16 am

    @ David L –

    I agree on that one, although I do use the syntactically crazy 'double have' construction, which looks on the surface like a kind of hybrid of your two examples (though I dare say it isn't):

    I wish you hadn't've done that .

    Though I suspect that the have is actually of – not just phonetically, I think it's been re-analysed – which makes the construction even weirder.

  13. John Chew said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 12:11 pm

    In the 1950s, at the Japanese Language School at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, my father would ask students taking the final oral exam to translate the lyrics to the then popular song "If I Knew You Were Coming, I'd've Baked A Cake." (In my personal usage, I would say "If I'd known you were coming, I'd'a baked a cake.")

  14. Zeppelin said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 12:11 pm

    Maybe what Adrian Bailey is referring to is the usage of "would have" rather than a dedicated subjunctive "had", in irrealis constructions?

    It's been my impression that in American English a phrase like "I wish I would have noticed it earlier", is unremarkable, while it's non-standard in British English, where you'd expect "I wish I had noticed it earlier".
    The former construction does stand out to me whenever I come across it, I'm pretty sure my English teacher here in Germany would have considered it a mistake.

  15. Ed Vanderpump said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 12:18 pm

    I do feel that the use of "would" has increased in recent years. It feels almost as if it has been influenced by "würde" in German (and related words in other languages?). I mean in places where it used not to occur eg " If he would have done it, I would have noticed", where I would say "If he had". I noticed this first in AmE speakers and much innovation seems too come into BrE that way – or perhaps through globalised or international English, which is heavily AmE-influenced.

  16. Guy said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 12:19 pm

    Trump's use of "would have" in this exact context is a little odd. But I'm completely mystified by the comments that think there's something odd about "would have" in general. It's thoroughly standard English. I think commenters may be confusing the construction in general with specific uses that you find odd. For example, I (American, SF Bay Area, for what it's worth) don't think I would utter David L's example. But are there people who have objections to sentences like "this wouldn't have happened if you had been more careful in the first place"?

  17. DWalker said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 12:24 pm

    Inception movie! Yes!

    My brother and brother-in-law went to see that movie after I did, and as they left the house, I told them "watch out, your head will explode".

  18. DWalker said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 12:24 pm

    Bernie Taupin by way of Elton John: "I would have liked to have known her, but I was just a kid….."

  19. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 12:36 pm

    @ Zeppelin –

    I think you might have nailed it. That I wish I would have construction is not possible for me, at any rate.

    (Though is 'subjunctive had' a term in use? I think CGEL would call it 'modally remote').

  20. Eli Driscoll said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 3:56 pm

    My initial feeling is that I think the 'if I would have [known]/I wish you would have [helped]' construction is far more widespread in written, broadcast and publicly spoken American English in the UK, to the point where, as an ESL teacher I no longer feel it's fair to judge a non-native usage of the construction as any kind of error. In British English, subjectively I would say it's common in rapid informal speech, but is expressed as something like ' if I'd'a [known] (where 'a' should be schwa). When 'would' is stressed, or at least not contracted, it still stands out to a British listener.

  21. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 4:03 pm

    @ Eli Driscoll –

    That's another good point. Having said that I wish I would have was impossible for me, I now realise that I wish I'd've feels completely unremarkable. Very interesting.

  22. Eli Driscoll said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 4:06 pm

    And google seems to confirm my impression, at least as far as the written language goes, with the construction having become markedly more common in US English over the last 20 years:

  23. Eli Driscoll said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 4:09 pm

    The ngram

  24. David Morris said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 4:24 pm

    @Eli: I wondered how the frequency of 'if I would have been' compared with that of 'if I had been'. While 'if I would have been' has indeed become markedly more common in US English (and slightly more in Br English), 'if I had been' is still far more common *and* has grown in usage even faster in both varieties.

    This has occasionally come up in ESL classes. My recommendation is to follow the general pattern – a 'ordinary' verb (for the want of a better term) after the 'if' and a modal + V in the other half of the sentence.

  25. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 4:29 pm

    Hang on though. When I say I wish I'd've, I'm probably contracting had, using the double have construction I mentioned above, not contracting would!

    That's the most parsimonious explanation, since both emphatic I wish I HAD've known and I wish I'dve known are fine to my ear (as well as had I have known) – but not I wish I would have known.

  26. Eli Driscoll said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 4:43 pm

    I suppose "d' has become something of an infix denoting either past irrealis, the pluperfect, or both! But 'I wish I had have known' is as non-standard, if not more so than 'I wish I would have known,' and I think if pronounced with both 'had' and 'have' audible as individual words, would strike anyone as extremely unusual.

  27. David Morris said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 4:46 pm

    PS That does not preclude the use of 'if + modal' for politeness: 'If you would look to your right, you will see (some tourist site)'.

  28. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 4:49 pm

    Had I have known, though, is (to me) fine. I mean the have isn't a full [hav], naturally, being unstressed, but the /h/ can be audible.

  29. Mark said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 7:03 pm

    I'm not normally a follower of this but the discussion was pointed out to me.

    This "would have" construction is frequently used by politicians in public statements, and I have noticed it becoming more prevalent. I suspect some politicians just get into the habit of using the construction.

    My theory is that it is a way of them giving the impression of saying something definitive, or making a commitment, without actually saying something for which they could, at a future time, be held accountable, in the way that "will" or "shall" would.

    It is also frequently used by politicians when they are challenged about some course of action, public statement or decision in the past. Instead of replying to a question "what I said was", they reply with "what I would have said was". This a way of them inventing or rewriting their past actions. Personally I'm interested in what you did or didn't do/say/decide rather than what you are now saying you would have done/said/decided.

  30. Belial Issimo said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 8:28 pm

    I wish Language Log would have been around when I was an undergraduate.

  31. Dvivon said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 9:21 pm

    Based on my previous knowledge about Trump and humans, I would think that the future Trump is referring to is: if the pope gets his way/Trump is not elected, which results in, among other horrible things/the Vatican being attacked by ISIS, which then causes/the pope to regret being against Trump as president of the US.

    Or, in more general terms – I will not be around and everyone will regret all the bad things they thought about me, because they will clearly realize that each of those bad things could have been prevented by me and that I predicted all of this. So I kind of wish all of this would happen and I will show them all!

  32. David P said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 9:50 pm

    Jimmy Buffett: "If your phone's not ringing, you'll know it's me."

  33. Graeme said,

    February 21, 2016 @ 8:00 am

    At the risk of bringing a theological logomachy into a grammatical logjam … in what religion does one 'pray' for a past non-event to be undone?

  34. Nathan Myers said,

    February 21, 2016 @ 11:34 am

    "I wish I would have" isn't ungrammatical, it's just sloppy. American here.

    "Willen haven been", Dr Dan Streetmentioner. Who needs time machines?

  35. David Fried said,

    February 22, 2016 @ 2:43 pm

    Graeme is right, which is why the New Yorker's copy-edited version leaves out "pray" altogether. To get it in, it would have been necessary (!) to say:

    The Pope will wish that Donald Trump had been elected President and that he had prayed for that result. . .

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