The Perfect Afters

When I first arrived in Ireland, one thing I noticed about the way Irish people use the English language is a construction using the word “after” and the present participle of a verb. I first heard it in the context of a football match on the television, actually, during which the commentator said “the ball is after going out for a corner” or words to that effect.

This construction is basically an alternative way of constructing what is called in Latin called (past) perfect tense of a verb, indicating an action which is now completed. In Latin this would be formed by a particular ending of the verb but when translated into English it would either be a simple past verb form (usually ending in -ed) or using the auxiliary verb “to have”. For instance, in the football example above you would interpret the meaning as “the ball has gone out for a corner” or the “the ball went out for a corner”.

(Now I’m regretting using the irregular verb “to go” in the football example but I hope you catch my drift…)

The “after” construction is not just an alternative way of writing the past tense, however, as it can (and usually does) specifically imply an action that has been completed in the very recent past, something you might express in English by inserting the word “just”. This is sometimes called the immediate perfective. It can also be used to form the pluperfect tense (expressing an action already completed at some time in the past) by using the past of the verb “to be”, though in modern Irish it seems to be more-or-less exclusively used for actions only recently completed.

Examples include:

  • He is after writing a letter – He has (just) written a letter
  • I’m only after getting here – I’ve just got here
  • He was after walking the dog – He had walked the dog
  • I’m after reading James Joyce’s Ulysses for the second time – I have just read James Joyce’s Ulysses for the second time…

In the book English As We Speak It In Ireland, the author P.W. Joyce writes that no such form ‘would be understood by an Englishman, although they are universal in Ireland, even among the higher and educated classes’.

It’s certainly the case that I didn’t really understand it when I first heard it, but I have heard it used on countless occasions by friends and neighbours since then. I think I was initially confused because “he is after..” can appear in English. phrases such “he is after a new job” expressing something like “looking for” (i.e. with intent) but that is not suggested in the examples above.

I think poll my readers on this, which will probably demonstrate how few Irish readers I have. If someone were to say “I’m after getting a cup of tea” would this mean:

It’s reasonable to wonder how this construction came about. The answer is that in Irish the verb “to be” is very peculiar, existing in two distinct forms, and there is no direct equivalent of the verb “to have” as it is used in the formation of verb tenses in English. There is a simple past in Irish that basically works like the English equivalent but tenses involving “have” or “had” as an auxiliary verb are impossible to render word for word. For example, translating I have just done it into Irish could give you  Tá mé tar éis é a dhéanamh or Tá mé i ndiaidh é a dhéanamh, both of which literally mean I am after doing it. (Tá mé means “I am” and the underlined phrases essentially mean after).

I suppose you can think of this interesting construction as being a relic of the Irish language surviving after the imposition of English on the population. Whatever its origins, though, I’m after concluding that this construction, although not standard in British English, is perfectly sound from a grammatical point of view.

Finally, and incidentally, the lack of an appropriate verb “to have” causes some other interesting expressions in Irish. One of my favourites is exemplified by the phrase “I have a cold” which, translated into Irish is “Tá slaghdán orm” which means, literally, “A cold is on me”…

Anyway, I’m after finishing.

One Response to “The Perfect Afters”

  1. I wonder if it’s related to the construction I hear from Liverpudlians. e.g. “I’ll do it after”, meaning “I’ll do it later”, rather than after anything specific.

    Also, the Welsh “i’ll do it now in a minute”.

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