as would’ve

A little while ago Geoff Pullum wrote me with what he thought might be a counterexample to our treatment of Auxiliary Reduction in English (in “Cliticization vs. inflection” and in the longer, still unpublished version of  “Licensing of prosodic features by syntactic rules: The key to Auxiliary Reduction”). The relevant bit is the third instance of would’ve in this passage from a review in Slate (all three instances boldfaced here):

It’s fun to think about what Cowboys & Aliens might have been if any creativity had crept past the title page. Instead of bonding over their shared humanity, it would’ve been fascinating to see the cowboys and Indians take opposite sides in the movie’s climactic intergalactic battle. Cowboys & Aliens vs. Indians would’ve been a far superior film, as would’ve Cowboys vs. Aliens & Indians. Or Cowboys vs. Aliens & Indians & Predator. What we’re left with instead is a dumb movie that thinks it’s smart. (link)

[extracted from this] (1) Cowboys & Aliens vs. Indians would’ve been a far superior film, as would’ve Cowboys vs. Aliens & Indians.

The crucial fact is that the third instance seems to be in an occurrence of Subject-Auxiliary Inversion (SAI); the other two are instances of Subject+VP (SVP), which (while they might set the scene for the third would’ve) doesn’t involve inversion. The problem is that SAI inverts a single auxiliary, while on the Z&P analysis of reduced auxiliaries, would’ve is, from a syntactic point of view, a sequence of two auxiliaries.

Geoff and I drew contrasted “contractions” of auxiliaries with following n’t (don’t, isn’t, haven’t, etc.) versus “contractions” of auxiliaries with preceding words (I’d, she’s, they’ve, etc.), arguing that the former were, morphologically and syntactically, single words, while the latter were two-word sequences. Within the second set of “contractions”, we distinguished occurrences of auxiliaries in phonologically reduced variants (without phrasal accent) and occurrences that form some sort of unit — a “clitic group” — with the preceding word.

So we distinguished strong, weak, and clitic variants of auxiliaries. But the single-word condition on SAI should apply to all of them.

Now a series of observations.

#1. A search on {“as would’ve”} pulls up a large number of relevant examples, many from sources that would be hard to impugn as careless writing. Two more examples, in different writing styles:

(2) Not half so courageous as would’ve been a call to capture OBL… (link)

(3) The designers stated that they wanted to protect online play, so that nobody would jack their team rankings to 100% (an issue that plagued the DS edition), but an offline-only ability to tweak to our heart’s content would’ve been nice, as would’ve been the ability to change the generic teams’ colors and logos. (link)

And one like (1), without the been of (2) and (3):

(4) … and it would’ve been a better use of his time than those awful Dan Brown movies (as would’ve, I don’t know, opening a birdhouse-construction business). (link).

There are also relevant examples of {“so would’ve”} and {“than would’ve”}, for instance:

(5) And Jeff Carter would have been absolutely bloody fantastic for the Preds. Heck, so would’ve Mike Richards. (link)

(6) I [think] laughing in the face of an angry black person calling me a “fucking cracker” diffuses his epithet way more successfully than would’ve my responding with a “fucking nigger.” (link)

(The introductory elements as and than are optional triggers for SAI, so an obligatory trigger.)

#2. Some of these examples have would’ve been, the others have would’ve with ellipsis of been (via Verb Phrase Ellipsis, or VPE). So we’re looking at not just two auxiliaries in sequence, but in fact three. That’s a considerable reach for SAI.

(Note on VPE: The ellipsis of a complement to an auxiliary verb can reach several levels into syntactic structure:

A call to monitor OBL wouldn’t have been courageous, but a call to capture him
… would have been courageous [no VPE]
… would have been [ellipsis of the complement to been]
… would have [ellipsis of the complement to have]
… would [ellipsis of the complement to would]

That is: would (have (been (courageous))). )

#3. The “contracted” ‘ve (sometimes non-standardly spelled of) is surely a red herring. It’s simply the weak variant of have, conventionally spelled ‘ve. And indeed examples like (1)-(6) above can be matched by ones with the spelling have.

#4. Another red herring. In informal but still non-standard speech and writing, would’ve (often in the spelling would have) has in fact been reanalyzed by a fair number of speakers as a single lexical item, capable of inversion i/n SAI, as in these invented examples:

What would’ve you done?
How would’ve you responded?
Would’ve you paid for it?

The phenomenon was described by Joyce Tang Boyland in her 1996 Berkeley Ph.D. dissertation, Morphosyntactic Change in Progress: A Psycholinguistic Treatment. There’s a lot of variation in usage, but these variants are clearly part of some people’s grammars, though the reanalysis doesn’t seem to have been extended to three-auxiliary sequences; I doubt that people who accept things like

Would have/’ve you been unhappy?

(alongside Would you have/’ve been unhappy?) would go along with things like

*Would have/’ve been you unhappy?

#5. The conclusion of all of this is that what’s going on (1)-(6) isn’t SAI at all, but a postposing of the subject in a variety of constructions with specific types of introductory elements (among them, as, so, and than) — what CGEL (pp. 1385-6) calls Subject Dependent Inversion (SDI), though CGEL doesn’t discuss the specific cases above. With as, so, and than, SDI is favored, not surprisingly, when the subject is “heavy” — long or complex — and is generally characteristic of a somewhat formal style.

The paradigm is then, using (2) as the model and simplifying things:

(SVP) … as a call to capture OBL would (have (been))

(SAI) … as would a call to capture OBL have ?(been)

(SDI) … as would have (been) a call to capture OBL

(The interaction of these constructions with VPE is clearly complex, but that’s a side issue here. Note that I’ve marked the ellipsis of been in the SAI example as questionable; that’s my judgment, but a text search might throw some light on standard usage in this case.)

As so often the case, there are many different “ways of saying the same thing” — but of course these ways differ in their prosody, stylistic characteristics, and discourse function.


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