Worst. Sentence. Ever!

If they wouldn’t have been released, I don’t know when I would have ended up seeing Star Wars, and if I wouldn’t have seen Star Wars when I did, I don’t think my life and career would be what it is now.

Yeesh, just look at that. Ok, maybe it’s not necessarily the worst sentence ever, but it’s an unwieldy beast to say the least. A little context: I came across this in an online article about the theatrical release of the “Special Editions” of the Star Wars films in 1997, and this sentence was a quote from someone asked about the impact the films had on her.

And that person chose to use a hypothetical situation, therefore all-but ensuring the presence of an if and a would, and making the sentence a little complex. Fair enough, but still! It’s longer that it need be. And look at all those would‘s. Every time I read it, knowing the meaning, it still has no rhythm to it at all. Really, just look at all those would‘s in there! Apart from how it reads in your head, there’s also the issue of meaning. The sentence gets so weighed down by the different conditions and outcomes contained within it that it’s hard to parse the intended meaning.

How to improve it then? First, I’d split it into two sentences, separating the two conditional ideas. Right before that and (which could go). But I’d also get strict about my grammar. I know I often stress that strict grammatical accuracy isn’t so important, but this is one case where following the rules makes one’s meaning much clearer. In this case our grammar point is conditional structures. A quick overview:

Conditional sentences express a condition of varying probability, and the consequence of this condition being met. They generally contain if. There are five main types of conditional sentence:

Zero conditional: refers to established truths 

If you heat water to 100°C, it boils.

First conditional: refers to realistic future situations

If it rains, I’ll put on my coat.

Second conditional: refers to unlikely or impossible present or future situations

If I won the lottery, I’d go on a round-the-world trip.

Third conditional: refers to imaginary past situations

If my alarm had gone off, I wouldn’t have been late for work. (but it didn’t go off and I was late)

Mixed conditional: most commonly combines the second and third conditionals which refers to present consequences of imagined past conditions

If my alarm had gone off, I wouldn’t be in trouble with my boss now.

These last two are most relevant to our case, and I would thus change the sentence to:

If they hadn’t been released, I don’t know when I would have ended up seeing Star Wars. And if I hadn’t seen Star Wars when I did, I don’t think my life and career would be what it is now.

A little clearer, no?

If you look back at the quoted sentence at the top of the page, you’ll see it contains a third conditional and a mixed conditional. And while third and mixed conditionals are usually unavoidably complex sentences, you might notice that my sentences are shorter. And that’s because where the Star Wars fan uses If I would have…, I use If I had…. A little shorter, but it makes it much clearer, especially as it halves the would count of the sentence. And more importantly, it’s the standard structure.

But all this time, you might have been thinking What’s his problem with the sentence, it’s fine! Because it’s become much more common to say If I would have… instead of If I had… This seems to be especially true in American English, to the extent that it could probably be considered a standard element of the dialect. But honestly, I can’t figure out how it’s become so widespread. I can understand someone getting the structure of a third or mixed conditional sentence a bit mixed up, as they’re so complex. But it just seems so awkward to say I would have…, it never sounds natural, so I don’t know how it’s caught on! For me, the following just sounds awful:

If my alarm wouldn’t have gone off, I wouldn’t have been late for work.

Apart from the extra length and repetitive sound, the increased similarity between the two clauses (which both contain wouldn’t have) makes it less clear which is the condition and which is the consequence. It’s maybe just a trivial nuisance, and I have to accept that this is what people increasingly say. I just can’t figure out why they do, when the “correct” version is simpler and seems to come more naturally.

What do you think? Is it a big deal? Do you say If I would have…?

9 thoughts on “Worst. Sentence. Ever!

  1. Good post on the subject of clarity. I’d edit that sentence, too.

    And for all that, you’ve not mentioned the subjunctive tense. Mind you, had you mentioned the subjunctive here, you may have muddied the waters even more. But the subjunctive goes with wishes & dreams and conditional events, too.

    The subjunctive would read:
    Were I to win the lottery, I’d probably be broke in short order like most people who win the lottery. If your alarm were defective, you could return it for a refund. If I were you, I’d check that out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s so weird to my ears every time I hear it. One of the first things about teaching conditionals to students was that “if” and “will/would” should never go together, so it kills me to hear native speakers put them together!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this post. Love love love it. It’s great because these are things that come very naturally to a lot of people who are native English speakers, so we don’t think about what the rules actually are, we just know what sounds right. Fortunately, there are people like you out there who write out the actual rules to make things easier on those it doesn’t come so easily to.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Also- one of my writing professors in college HATED one of James Franco’s books with a passion because of his use of the phrase “gaping gap.” There are also a million and one posts out there dedicated solely to the task of making fun of awful lines from 50 Shades of Grey

      Liked by 1 person

      • “Gaping gap:” that’s like nails on a chalkboard! It looks and sounds awful! I think it’s the repetition of “gap,” but with different sounds. And of course, “gap” would probably suffice. I always believe in keeping things as simple as possible.

        Liked by 1 person

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