5

If I were her, I would have killed him months ago. [englishforum]

A person asks whether the expression can be acceptable. In my mother tongue, that also can be a way of saying. In English, is it a proper saying?

4

This is indeed exactly the right way to construct an IF...THEN expression with a counterfactual (a ‘condition contrary to fact’) in the IF clause:

  1. For your IF clause, you employ the ‘past subjunctive’ (or whatever your particular grammatical sect chooses to call it); this is the basic past form of your verb, without personal inflection — in this case, were.

  2. For your THEN clause, you start with the past form of a modal verb to mark the act as hypothetical: would ...

  3. ... together with the ‘bare infinitive’ of your lexical verb, which would be kill, except that ...

  4. ... in your case you want to say not that you would kill in the present or future, but that this hypothetical act of violence would by now be an already accomplished fact. Accordingly, you backshift the infinitive kill into the past by employing the bare perfect infinitive: have + the past participle of your lexical verb, killed.

3

The answer at englishforums.com suggests that forms like “If I were him, I would do...” and “If I had been him, I would have done...” are legitimate, and that form “If I were him, I would have done...”, while commonly heard, may be questionable.

That might be technically correct – I can't quite say – and in reviewing the subjunctive in English I was unable to tell for certain. Here in the USA I hear a vast variety of subjunctive forms and the form “If I were him, I would have done...” seems to me clear and understandable rather than wrong.

Digression: The problem I have with “If I had been her, I would have killed him months ago” or “If I had been him, I would have done ...” is that they seem to pile a second counter-factual on top of the first counter-factual: they suggest that for a while I had been her or him (which is the first counter-factual), and in that while did some action, and after that (when the had been phase ended) changed back to myself. One or the other of those changes does not seem entirely natural to me.

  • If I had been her is the canonical backshift of if I were her. The perfect construction with the past participle is employed to carry the past sense (since you can't backshift the past form were any farther), and the auxiliary have is cast in the 'subjunctive past' form had in order to carry the counterfactual sense. It would be more clearly parallel if you wrote "If I had been her I would have killed him months before." – StoneyB Mar 15 '13 at 1:27
  • If it was two old spinsters reminiscing about the time many decades earlier when one of them had turned down a suitor, the other might reasonably say "If I'd have been you, I'd have married him". That seems a lot more appropriate than "If I were you I'd have married him" to me. But OP's example doesn't need to explicitly force the contrafactual postulate further back in time, so it's better as it is. – FumbleFingers Mar 15 '13 at 3:42
  • ...also (I know this'll make some cringe) - I'd never actually expand "I'd" there in normal speech. But if I was somehow forced to, I'd probably come out with "If I had have been...", rather than "If I would have been..." – FumbleFingers Mar 15 '13 at 3:46
  • @FumbleFinger But why would you say either, rather than If I'd been you? – StoneyB Mar 15 '13 at 11:32
  • @StoneyB: Why indeed? Why, if I type in if id known to a Google Chrome "incognito" window (which prevents the results from being skewed by any of my previous searches) are two of the first four results for If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd've Baked a Cake. I guess the shorter form fits the "metre" of the song better, but presumably Google acts like that because a lot of people (when they're not actually singing it) remember the words differently. It feels to me as if the longer form in OP's example emphasises the contrafactuality more, but maybe that's just a personal feeling. – FumbleFingers Mar 15 '13 at 13:35

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.