Irish "would"

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Below is an email from Eoin Ryan (with added audio):

Last week on Language Log you posted about a "tentative would" as used by Mike Pence, which reminded me of a use of "would" which I find interesting and may be similar, but I think it is different. Also, last week I had no clear examples to hand, which was a reason not to jump into the comments of the previous post.

Martin McGuinness died this morning. As a central and complex figure in both the Northern Irish Troubles, Peace Process and devolved Stormont parliament, his death is receiving blanket media coverage. A radio host named Ryan Tubridy has a show every weekday morning at 9 on RTE 1 (one of the national radio channels) and he too could not but talk about McGuinness, and this is how he led off:

As you can imagine, it is wall-to-wall
uh talk of
uh the passing of Martin McGuinness, which
is news that I would have woken up to this morning and uh as soon as I checked
the uh newspapers and the headlines and so forth it was the uh
it was the opening story.

This seems odd to me, because it's not that Tubridy would have heard the news. He is awake, and he actually did hear the news. He could (should?) have said, "I heard the news when I woke up". But this way of speaking seems frequent.

Frequent it may be, but now I have to invent examples. It seems perhaps to be a sort of narrative aspect or subjunctive (which is then often heard I think when people are interviewed on radio and television as it happens), for both events and state descriptions

– I would be a great fan of U2, and I have been to all their concerts in Dublin.
– She would have been greatly loved by everyone in the village.
– He would be the postman here, so he would know everyone.
– I would have left the school before 6, but then I saw the fire and …
– I would have gone to the cafe like I always did when I met her.

As I said, I'm making these examples up, but they seem right to me. The first seems to indicate carefulness about a more subjective self-description, but I believe I also hear this with more objective descriptions (as with the postman). The second might count for hedging on the "everyone" (or the "greatly"). In the third I deliberately switched from a clearly objective claim to something more plausibly hypothetical. The fourth might be read as indicating an inference about the exact time, and the fifth about a particular event being inferred from a habitual pattern, but I believe people would say this in the first-person where there is less need to infer (they know that they were at the cafe).

As I said, these five examples are invented, but I think they are all things that people would say.

So, do you know anything about this sort of construction? It seems Irish to me, but maybe it's not. If it is, maybe it's recreating some feature of Irish (Gaelic) grammar — in which case maybe it is longstanding Hiberno-English and I'm just suffering some sort of recency illusion (it seems to me to be growing in frequency in the last two decades or more). I haven't figured out how to Google examples, because without surrounding context it is very hard in a search parameter to distinguish the schema from hypothetical structures with "would".

If you have any insights on this, I'd be grateful.

[Above is an email from Eoin Ryan.]

I have a few thoughts, but no real knowledge, so I'll leave this one to the commenters.

Update — thanks to mollymooly, who cited some relevant previous posts

* 2008-01-09 That would be in the modal auxiliary, Bob
* 2009-03-18 We've met the enemy, and that would be in the modal auxiliary, Bob
* 2009-04-02 Why "that would be me"? (part 1)
* 2009-04-03 Why "that would be me"? (part 2)



  1. Keith said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 9:55 am

    To my mind, some of these "invented" examples (all of which seem perfectly natural and believable to me, a native speaker of British English) resemble a kind of imperfect tense, in the sense of a habitual, repeated event.

    This is one of the constructions I teach French speakers as a way of expressing what is French is called "l'imparfait de l'indicatif".

    "Chaque matin, je prenais mon petit déjeuner dans la cuisine avant de partir pour l'école"

    "Every morning, I would eat my breakfast in the kitchen before setting off for school"
    "Every morning, I used to eat my breakfast in the kitchen before setting off for school"

    The last example, though, seems a little different.

    I would have gone to the cafe like I always did when I met her.

    There's almost a kind of "obligation" or "expression of necessity" here. I'm not sure how to name it. It seems to me like I could read that two ways.

    I always used to go to the café to meet her, so I must have done so on that day, too.

    I always used to go to the café, so it must have been there that I met her.

  2. Amy Whitson said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 9:57 am

    Is this similar to a usage I frequently see from students (in the US), "An example of this would be…"?

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 10:10 am

    Amy Whitson: I got the impression somewhere that "That would be…?" was a catchphrase from Saturday Night Live, but in a quick search I can't find it. However, I did find this from a 1978 sketch, "Mercy Killers":

    "Mr. Gilbert: […] So, uh, why don't you just, uh, shut off all those machines?

    "Doctor: Well, we can't do that. Not without the permission of the closest of kin and that would be you, Mrs. Gilbert."

    Somehow that seems a little different from Eoin Ryan's examples.

  4. Stan Carey said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 10:10 am

    T.P. Dolan, in A Dictionary of Hiberno-English (third edition, 2012), writes:

    Christopher Mac Hale (University of Liverpool) draws attention to the vastly extended use of would in HE [Hiberno-English]: 'Among HE-speakers there is a pronounced tendency to replace the simple present tense with the conditional (would) and the simple past tense with the conditional perfect (would have), for example, "Are you concerned about what your children eat?" – "Yes, I would be", "We would have been very close" (meaning that we were, in fact, very close), "He would have gone to school with me" (meaning that he did, in fact, go to school with the speaker, and an English person hearing an utterance like this is inclined at first to wonder what prevented 'him' from going to school with the speaker)'.

    This accords with my own experience as a west of Ireland native. It's very common in the local vernacular.

  5. paul said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 10:34 am

    I think that the Tubridy example is using the conditional for tentative hedging, suggesting he's slightly unsure about exactly when he heard the news. The other examples all sound right to me as a Hiberno-English speaker, and not all of them are examples of hedging/tentativeness. I think it might be related to the habitual past, either from Irish (similar to the present habitual traces found in forms like "he does be in the cafe every day") or older forms of English that more often use 'would' instead of "used to" for habitual past. It's very often used when the speaker is narrating something that happened a long time ago, even if it isn't exactly habitual or conditional, I think to suggest that the speaker is somewhat reconstructing events, as though the phrase "If I recall correctly…" is implicitly prepended.

  6. mollymooly said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 11:30 am

    I think it may be related to the "tentative would" discussed previously on language log [The Irish "would" is mentioned in some comments to these]:
    * 2008-01-09 That would be in the modal auxiliary, Bob
    * 2009-03-18 We've met the enemy, and that would be in the modal auxiliary, Bob
    * 2009-04-02 Why "that would be me"? (part 1)
    * 2009-04-03 Why "that would be me"? (part 2)

    I think in some cases the Irish "would" indicates politeness. "What age would you be?" is less brusque than "How old are you?". Compare "Who might you be?"

  7. Mark Meckes said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 11:48 am

    This seems to me to be related to "And you would be … ?" in the sense of "Who are you?" Though maybe that's closer to Jerry Friedman's example, which, as he says, seems a little different from Eoin Ryan's.

  8. FM said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 12:11 pm

    I managed to fish a real-life example from the ICE-Ireland :

    Sure remember Leonard and I went to Brindisi, it was shite (laughter) the best thing about it was you just go round the little uhm, sweet shop you'd have a stand with uhm Four Star delivery service.

  9. Andy Stow said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 12:55 pm

    My son and I took a college tour recently in Michigan. The student who gave us the tour had this same habit, but I could detect no accent to my (mostly) midwestern ears.

    "This would be the cafeteria."

    The other interesting one that had my son and I stifling snickers, was the repeated pronunciation of "liberry."

  10. Eric Nelson said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 2:01 pm

    When visiting historic sites in the US — especially sites that try to show glimpses of everyday life as it once was — I've often heard guides say things like "This is where the family would have eaten breakfast" or "It would have been really cold in this room in winter," even though the family actually did eat breakfast there and it was without doubt damn cold.

  11. J Rivera said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 2:26 pm

    I can't remember the exact wording, but am reminded of this often-repeated story: A visitor to New York, who– on seeing Robert Benchley at a night spot with Dorothy Parker– asked, "And she would be Mrs. Benchley?" was told," She would be Mrs. Benchley, but she's Ms. Parker."

  12. BZ said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 2:44 pm

    Interestingly enough things like "who would you be?" and "what age would you be?" (both of which sound ok to my New Jersey ears along with "that would be the cafeteria") exist in Russian, but using the future tense ("kem ty buddish" = "who will you be")

  13. BZ said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 2:47 pm

    Actually after further thinking, it's "kto ty budish". My original phrase translates "whom will you be?" and would mean, rather literally, "what will your job/title/profession/position be at some point in the future?"

  14. Warren Maguire said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 3:14 pm

    Hundreds of examples of this in my Tyrone dialect corpus (currently under construction), e.g.

    – And, then, when the pot of spuds would be boiled, he was always wild for spuds.
    – And he would have stayed.
    – The dog would've come with him and then it got fed and all.
    – And he would've shaved, he could've shaved in the dark and he wouldn't have had left one hair o-, on.
    – He would maybe stay for about three months.
    – He would dip his head for about a week before he would leave.
    – There would be tea made and everybody chatted, like.
    – And the corn, some of the times the corn would've been put into the barn-loft instead of being stacked.
    – They mightn't've come to nine or ten o'clock but then they would've sit on maybe to four o'clock in the morning, like.
    – There would've been tea made twice or maybe three times.

  15. Adam said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 3:26 pm

    Mollymooly's example—"What age would you be?"—struck a chord. I'm American, and I think I've heard similar phrasing used in questions posed to children, usually young ones.

    My vague memory is of a very specific usage that often begins with "and" and ends with an endearment, as in “And how old would you be, honey?" "What would your name be, sweetheart?”

  16. Geoff said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 4:08 pm

    Some comments seem to be mixing up the construction under discussion with would = used to = habitual past reference.

    I think you can guess the evolution of this from examples like 'An example would be …' or 'Who would you be?' 'Would' is used to give a layer of politeness or tentativeness to an essentially factual statement. Later it extends to the statement alone even when the element of politeness or tentativeness is disappearing.

    An interesting question then would be whether the construction is more common or seems more natural in contexts where the ghost of a polite/tentative meaning can be postulated. Can you think of examples where it's definitely not appropriate? Scene after altercation in a pub: 'This bugger would have punched me in the face without the the slightest provocation, officer!' How does that sound?

  17. BasJ said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 5:35 pm

    Reminds me of the cricket commentary where I hear former West Indies cricketer Viv Richards (who is from Antigua) use this construction a lot. Here's a video from an interview with him:
    At 0:59 he says about a tournament the West Indies have won: "But certainly, what we would have seen in that particular tournament"
    Or at 2:12: "T20 has created this sort of a new clientele, which would have given cricket a new lease of life"

  18. Doc Rock said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 6:00 pm

    I wonder if Martin McGuinness was a central figure in two or three events? "Martin McGuinness died this morning. As a central and complex figure in both the Northern Irish Troubles, Peace Process and devolved Stormont parliament, his death is receiving blanket media coverage." ". . both" & " . . .Northern Irish Troubles, Peace Process and devolved Stormont parliament"[two events or three?]

  19. Bob Crossley said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 9:37 pm

    In the wise words of Father Jack Hackett: "That would be an ecumenical matter".

  20. AntC said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 11:44 pm

    @Doc Rock, if I were you, I wouldn't go stirring up an extremely long and tangled and painful history with such pedantry/sophistry.

    Noting that history is just one darned thing after another, we can safely say that the history of the Stormont Parliament wouldn't have happened without the Peace Process, which wouldn't have happened for the Northern Irish Troubles, which wouldn't have happened for …, which wouldn't have happened for, … Oliver Cromwell, …

    You can permute/combine those events under any number of groupings. The number of events is large, certainly more than three, even in my lifetime (and I'm younger than McGuinness).

    I take your quote to be saying he was central to both fomenting the troubles and the calming of those troubles.

  21. speedwell said,

    March 22, 2017 @ 4:12 am

    I'm an American expat (yes, yes, from the USA) and I'm married to a Tyrone man and we live in Sligo. I have picked up this usage of "would" in speech but not in print, I understand it perfectly, and it was not until this post that I even registered it as a thing.

  22. RP said,

    March 22, 2017 @ 7:02 am

    @Andy Stow,
    Is "liberry" a particularly unusual pronunciation? It is given as a possibility by M-W ( ).

    Interestingly M-W regards both "liberry" and "libry" as US pronunciations, but both are also used in the UK. Indeed, "libry" /ˈlʌɪbri/ is now accepted as a standard variant by Oxford Dictionaries ( ) (Oxford normally list a smaller range of variations than M-W, and typically stick to RP on their UK site). I usually say "libry" myself unless speaking slowly or trying to impress someone, and would not be the least bit surprised if it was really the more widespread pronunciation.

  23. John said,

    March 22, 2017 @ 10:09 am

    @Keith: The difference with a sentence like "Every morning, I would eat my breakfast in the kitchen before setting off for school" is that these examples aren't habitual, and they don't have to be historical. Assume for the sentences below that the breakfast did in fact get eaten.

    1. "The morning of April 2, 1973, I would eat my breakfast before setting off to school." sounds like a narrative device ("…but little did I know that before the day was out…")
    2. "?This morning, I would eat my breakfast…" doesn't quite work for me (Southern UK), but I feel like if it did it would be a similar kind of narrative device to (1).
    3. "The morning of April 2, 1973, I would have eaten my breakfast…" = I can't say for sure, but that's the kind of thing I did most mornings so I most likely did it then
    4. "This morning, I would have eaten my breakfast…" This is the kind of sentence at issue, as far as I can see. To my UK ears it sounds like (3), but I hear this kind of thing a lot in Ireland in cases where I'd use the simple past.

  24. satkomuni said,

    March 22, 2017 @ 11:23 am

    I see it all the time in English writing by native Mandarin speakers:
    * 'We would recommend stock X' when this sentence itself is the investment recommendation.
    * 'The company's margin would grow this year to 12%,' without a following conditional; this is the prediction.

    One of the authors once told me they had been taught using 'would' instead of 'will' makes it slightly 'softer', i.e. imbues a smaller degree of certainty. One even asserted that 'will' would provide ground for a lawsuit should the prediction fail to materialize, believing vehemently that using 'would' eliminated this risk while remaining perfectly grammatical.

  25. RP said,

    March 22, 2017 @ 2:17 pm

    There's a risk of conflating several usages which, while they may be related, are distinct.

    I find nothing odd about "we would recommend…", "we would suggest…", or the use of "would" to suggest a supposition or inference about past happenings ("when you arrived I would still have been asleep") or habitual behaviour ("each morning I would walk along the edge of the river"). I also find "who would you be?" normal. I think "this would be the library" sounds OK, although much more tentative than one would expect from a tour guide.

    But some other usages strike me (as a BrE speaker) as a little odd, and I assume these are the Irish ones. So "I would have woken up this morning and …" as an indicative account of a recent event that one clearly remembers – I find that odd. And "I would be a great fan of U2", as a statement of fact rather than a supposition or a conditional or a tentative – I find that odd too. "He would be the postman here", as a statement of known fact about the present, again, is odd to me. And so on.

  26. RP said,

    March 22, 2017 @ 2:33 pm

    "The company's margin would grow this year to 12%" is odd to me, too, though I'm not clear whether it's the same usage as the Irish one under discussion.

    In French the conditional is often used to report unproven allegations – this sounds a bit like that.

  27. Andy Stow said,

    March 23, 2017 @ 3:56 pm


    "Liberry" sounds very odd to me. I've lived in Derby (UK), Cincinnati area, southern Tennessee, and central Illinois. Maybe I just haven't hit the right places.

  28. MD said,

    April 2, 2017 @ 9:44 pm

    @ Andy Stow:

    You've definitely hit the right places. You just weren't listening closely.

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