Brexit and the Conditional Perfect

Friday, June 24th, 2016

Yes, of course this is to be about Brexit, but I’ve no grand pronouncements to make, just what you could call a linguistic note. It has to do with this very interesting piece – written by one Naomi O’Leary, no less, how Irish can you get! – in the Atlantic about its effect on Northern Ireland.

Scroll to the bottom, where Ms. O’Leary discusses a “gray-haired couple” witnessing a (Protestant) loyalist march there just last month, who “confided they would feel safer if the roads from the south were blocked again.” In the following direct quote from the lady, the English takes a turn into the bizarre:

I would have gone to school when I was a little girl on the other side of the border and we would have had our bags searched by the soldiers and so on.

Right – so did that actually happen, or not? You’re using the conditional perfect there, madam, which implies that it did not actually happen, but rather would have happened in the presence of some contrary-to-fact condition that you do not define, but that in any case did not hold true.

But no, then the quote goes on: “We didn’t mind. There was a reason for it.” OK then, so you did go to school in the Republic when you were a little girl, etc. Someone tell me, is this actually common English usage in Northern Ireland? Or was this lady rather peculiarly twisting her language to express past facts in as deferent, non-assertive a way as possible?

In any event, here is her final quote in the piece: “We managed before [i.e. when there was quite a serious border between Northern Ireland and the Republic] and we’ll manage again.” That is, she’s voting for Brexit. No doubt you also “managed” before without internal plumbing; I’m sure you could also “manage again” without that particular mod-con. More seriously, you also apparently “managed” when Protestants and Catholics were hunting each other down unmercifully in that very area – after all, you are still alive. Why not also that again, then – why the hell not, madam?

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