The Hot News or After Perfect in Irish English

A characteristic feature of English grammar in Ireland is the so-called after perfect, also known as the hot news perfect or the immediate perfective. Popular throughout Ireland yet unfamiliar to most users of English elsewhere, it’s an idiosyncratic structure that emerged by calquing Irish grammar onto English. It has also undergone some curious changes over time.

The after perfect normally expresses perfect tense, using after to indicate that something occurred in the recent or immediate past, relative to the time of speaking or reference. It uses a form of the verb be, followed by after, then usually a verb in the progressive tense. BE + AFTER + [VERB]ING. I’m after meeting them means I met them a short time ago.

So I’m after summarising the after perfect. Now for some detail.

Past tense be-forms work too, so the after perfect can correspond to the past perfect (aka pluperfect). Instead of We had just arrived, an Irish person may say We were just after arriving. Just, only, and only just are often added to stress recency: We’re just after eating means we finished eating just moments ago. Be after can also license a noun phrase: Let her rest – she’s only after a swim. Or: I’ve no room for dessert yet – I’m just after dinner.

Robert Burchfield’s Modern English Usage, rare for a usage guide, has an entry on the construction, describing it as ‘unknown’ outside what he calls Anglo-Irish. P.W. Joyce, in English As We Speak It In Ireland, writes that neither present nor past tense form ‘would be understood by an Englishman, although they are universal in Ireland, even among the higher and educated classes’. Note, though, that modern sources label it informal.

I said that it comes from Irish: on this point linguists are agreed. This is because the language has no direct equivalent of have. Translating I have just done it into Irish involves be and one of several phrases meaning after, e.g.: 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. (The underlined phrases mean after, as do iar and a haithle.)

Here are a few examples of the after perfect I’ve come across in Irish literature:

‘I’m after being in at the mart and the price of sheep is a holy scandal.’ (Claire Keegan, ‘Men and Women’, in Antarctica)

If we were after having some wet weather the earth would be damp and clammy, clinging to boots, knees and hands. (Alice Taylor, To School Through the Fields)

It’s after upsetting him more than anything ever upset him before in all our lives. (Donal Ryan, The Thing About December)

I shuddered when the shadow fell over me. Hickey laughed, his breath a white plume on the chilly air. ‘Is someone after walking across your grave?’ (Claire Kilroy, The Devil I Know)

‘When you get a bit of heat at all like the heat we’re after getting today,’ he said, ‘the man below do be swimmin’ in his own melt.’ (Kevin Barry, ‘White Hitachi’, in Dark Lies the Island)

stan carey - prehistoric stone circle near woodford co. galway ireland

A small stone circle (c.1200 BC) I’m after seeing near Woodford in south Galway. Not pictured: two skittish deer that bounded away without delay.

About those changes I mentioned. In contemporary Irish English, the after perfect nearly always refers to recent events (or recent relative to the point of reference). But centuries ago it commonly referred to the future, e.g. ‘[my heart] will be after breaking outright’ for ‘will break’. Even Irish people who use the idiom routinely may not know this; none that I asked did.

The switch from future to past reference occurred over the 18th and 19th centuries, following patterns in Irish, resulting in what Ailbhe Ó Corráin calls a ‘profound functional shift’ in his detailed historical discussion ‘On the “After Perfect” in Irish and Hiberno-English’ (PDF). He describes a wide range of types and uses of the after perfect, and shows how:

the various functions assignable to the early Hiberno-English AFP [after perfect] may be derived from attestable uses in earlier stages of Irish. . . . What is particularly remarkable is that the evolution of the AFP in Irish (now with tar éis, i ndiaidh) is mirrored by the evolution of the AFP in HE.

Jeffrey Kallen, in his paper ‘The English language in Ireland’ (PDF), has helpful insights into the after perfect’s extended uses and pragmatic functions in modern Hiberno-English:

Speech act status and social closeness have a role to play in uses of the after perfect, since after perfects frequently occur in situations where the speaker draws attention to an event that is known to the listener but which forms the focus of chastisement, e.g. You’re after breakin the gate!. O’Keeffe and Amador Moreno (2009) similarly emphasise the function of ‘scolding’, including ‘self-inflicted or self-deprecating’ utterances with the after perfect.

He argues that the ‘chastising and self-critical’ uses of the after perfect in Hiberno-English ‘would not have the same pragmatic effect if rendered with the regular English have perfect’.

As with other Hiberno-English features, such as amn’t and haitch, the after perfect is subject to occasional censure. Years ago, on her Irish Times arts blog, Fiona McCann wrote: ‘Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is after winning the Booker prize’. A reader, Mimi, queried the idiom, Fiona explained it, but Mimi was unimpressed: ‘As I thought then, grammatically incorrect! . . . sounds a bit “Irish” to me’. Wrote the Irish Times reader.

Lest there be any uncertainty: the after perfect is grammatically impeccable, though not standard English. Every dialect has its own grammar, none more correct or advanced than any other. Standard English is one such dialect, socially privileged but not linguistically superior. People are often confused on this point, and may use grammar as a pretext for expressing suspicion or dislike of a group of people.

But I’m after getting sidetracked.

You may have noticed the potential for ambiguity. The peculiarly Hiberno-English use of after can produce phrases that are legitimate in standard English but carry a different meaning: where after conveys the idea of wanting or seeking something. Reader Adrian Morgan reports an example he overheard in Australia, while T.P. Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English quotes one from George Birmingham’s The Lighter Side of Irish Life (1912):

An Englishman who had settled in Ireland once related to me a conversation which he had with an Irish servant. ‘Mary,’ he said, ‘will you please light the fire in my study?’ ‘I’m just after lighting it,’ she replied. ‘Then do it at once,’ he said. ‘Don’t I tell you, sir,’ she said, ‘that I’m just after doing it?’

Nor is it just anecdotal. Shane Walshe’s Irish English as Represented in Film cites a study by Harris (1982) in which groups of native HibE speakers and native BrE speakers were asked the meaning of the line I’m after getting a cup of tea. 143 out of 145 of the Irish English group understood it to mean the person had just got a cup of tea; 51 of 63 BrE speakers understood it as an expression of desire for a cuppa.

Speaking of which, I’m after making a fresh pot. Is anyone after a cup, in either sense?

37 Responses to The Hot News or After Perfect in Irish English

  1. old gobbo says:

    Thoroughly enjoyable, and thank you for clearing up my initial confusion, as adumbrated in the quotation from George Birmingham. Not ‘aving the Irish (me, that is), could you clarify for me another suspicion, that the subsequent verb is indeed the progressive and not, as I, an English speaker, would take it to be, the present participle governed by an auxiliary, in the same way as the perfect (or whatever they call it nowadays) is ?

    • old gobbo says:

      My apologies – written very late at night and a laboured joke turns out to be no such thing, as well as badly expressed. My uncertainty comes when you describe the form as “be, followed by after, then usually a verb in the progressive tense”. In UK English, ‘was going’ would normally be thought of as progressive, using ‘be’ and the present participle (or some might say, the gerund). My question is, what is the grammatical status of the additional verb in Irish – is it also the present participle or something else ?

      • Stan Carey says:

        I’m glad you enjoyed the post and that it resolved your earlier confusion. I think the Irish verb form is a gerund (or gerund-participle, as some modern linguists prefer to call it). My knowledge of Irish grammar is unreliable, though, so I invite readers who know more about this to weigh in if necessary.

  2. solsdottir says:

    Loved it! As I said on Facebook, Newfies are after doing this, too. Used to confuse the hell out of my mainland friends.

  3. Timothy Gwyn says:

    I have heard examples of this structure from maritime Canada. A news story reported that following a collision with a moose, a dazed driver was informed by a citizen coming to the rescue that, “You’re after hitting a moose!”

  4. John Cowan says:

    neither present nor past tense form would be understood by an Englishman

    It seems to me that every Stage Irish person, whether on the stage or in the movies, uses the AFP, and so Americans have at least heard it. It also seems fairly semantically transparent: we’re just after eating ‘we’re in the state which is just after (temporally) the state of eating’. This is even more obvious in I’m just after dinner.

    [my heart] will be after breaking outright

    Surely it’s the will, not the AFP, that carries the future meaning here: in terms of the gloss above, it means ‘My heart will be in the state which follows after it is in the state of breaking outright.

    ‘As I thought then, grammatically incorrect! . . . sounds a bit “Irish” to me’. Wrote the Irish Times reader.

    Ahhh, what can you expect from the readers of a (formerly) Unionist paper? :-)

    • Stan Carey says:

      Some sources point out that Stage Irish versions of the AFP stray from authentic use, e.g., Séamas Moylan’s book Southern Irish English, quotes Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s ‘The Two Languages’ (1969):

      It must always communicate a state ensuing on the completion of an action. This rules out the imperative mood. In the writer’s experience Be after getting along with you is only possible as a parody of stage Irish. . . . What will you be after having? in the sense “What will you have to drink?” has become current in Common Anglo-Irish as a take-off of the visiting foreigner, but the elements of choice and the non-finite implications of the action envisaged nullify the concept of a definite state subsequent to a completed action, and that concept is the essence of the construction.

      Yes, will carries the future meaning, but after supplies the sense of completion; without it, will be breaking would indicate ongoing breaking, while will break focuses on the event of breaking without moving attention on to the post-breaking stage, as the AFP does.

  5. cynthiamvoss says:

    This is so interesting, thanks for explaining. I’m trying to remember if I specifically remember being confused by this phrase. If I heard/saw it on TV, I probably understood it in the context of the scene. But if I’d read that before, I don’t think I understood what exactly the text was saying. Maybe I skipped over it and tried to keep up with whatever else was happening. I will try to notice this phrase from now on. And to answer your question, I’m just after a cup, and now I’m after another one :-)

    • Stan Carey says:

      You’re welcome, Cynthia. I’d imagine the surrounding context would quite often convey the meaning, and that genuinely ambiguous examples aren’t all that common. But the structure is so ingrained in my dialect that I find it hard to put myself in the shoes (or ears or eyes) of someone for whom it’s not a native idiom. So I can’t always tell how much potential for confusion or ambiguity there is. For example, I think in your last line you’ve just had a cup, and you want another, but that’s a guess based on semantic/pragmatic probability rather than syntax. :-)

  6. ucronin says:

    There’s a similar construction in Spanish, although a verb + preposition + infinitive (acabar + de + infinitive) is used instead of “after” + verb[ing].
    Acabo de leer un blog muy interesante — I’m after reading a very interesting blog.
    The immediacy of what has just happened is got across in very much the same way as with “after”.
    Coincidentally, acabar + de is often used for scolding as well.
    Acabas de romper la lampara — you’re after breaking the lamp.

  7. “We were just after arriving”…one cannot say this and NOT hear it in the voice of one of those adorable biddies in The Dead. Gosh, Irish is beautiful.

  8. Just an aside, but ambiguous ‘after’ plays a role in one of my favorite lines from Mark O’Rowe’s ‘Howie The Rookie’…

    ‘She knows I’m after her…(in amorous sense)…Not ‘after’ her (punches fist)…just…’after’ her…’

  9. Thanks for this post, Stan;

    I’ve heard this usage in “stage Irish” and when visiting Newfoundland but knew no name for it. Expecially I love the term “hot news.”

    You can hear Newfoundland actor Alan Hawco explain the specific permutation “What’s after happening?” to a baffled mainlander TV host in this clip (starting at about 2:20)

    Note that in the very silly Canadian TV show that made Hawco a star, where he played a Newfoundland P.I., his co-star, playing his Newfoundland father, was Irish actor Sean McGinley.

    • JJM says:

      “[H]is co-star, playing his Newfoundland father, was Irish actor Sean McGinley.”

      Who blended in fairly effortlessly without modulating his Irish accent at all.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for this, Elizabeth – the whole clip is very entertaining. Interesting too that the host thought What’s after happening now? meant ‘What are we doing next?’ Without any knowledge of the idiom, it’s a reasonable guess.

      I like the term hot news perfect too, and it seems pretty common in linguistic literature. I tend to call it the after perfect to begin with, then mention the other one as a colourful complement.

  10. Liam Grant says:

    I always enjoy reading your posts as they tend to point out usages I find reasonable (or actually use without thinking about) as a first generation New Yorker whose parents arrived from North Donegal (Inishowen) and Cavan (Bawnboy) just before (Yes, they were after arriving when they met and married), but which my classmates whose parents and grandparents taught them more standard English (of the American variety) were completely baffled by. I’ll be forwarding them a link here shortly.
    FYI — I wouldn’t have produced it directly as an example of future perfect, but “will be after” was a common construction I heard often at home or with my grandparents (“Stop by about 6pm; we will be after having tea.”)
    Liam

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks, Liam. It can be fun to have an phrase in your regular stock that discombobulates the people around you. Maybe a few have picked it up off you since. I’ve heard (and may have used) lines like We’ll be after having tea, though I think I’d be more likely to go straight to the noun phrase: We’ll be after [our] tea.

  11. JJM says:

    It occasionally still pops up here in the Ottawa Valley. Not surprising considering the Irish were a large part of the immigrant population that settled the area in the 19th Century.

  12. Mise says:

    Very interesting, Stan! I wonder whether there are two distinct afters: the temporal ‘after’ of the past (i ndiaidh/tar éis: I’m just after writing this sentence), and the ‘after’ of pursuit/chase (i ndiaidh/sa tóir ar: she’s after a seat in the Dáil, he’s after a wife), which could also be the future tense after, as in ‘I’m after a cup of tea.’ But I merely surmise.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Maybe, Mise. I’d need to look at more examples of the different Irish forms of it in different contexts. For me, though, I’m after a cup of tea describes a recent event, not a future desire, unless the context indicates otherwise.

  13. I too enjoyed the post. Fowler wrote about this under ‘after’: ‘English novelists, rashly trying to represent Irish characters as speaking in their native idiom, almost always betray their ignorance of its subtleties. The most common mistake is their wrong use of the expression “I’m after doing so-and-so” …’

    Another piece of Hiberno-English that springs to my mind is ‘You had a right to [do something]’, meaning ‘You should have [done something]’. It crops up a lot in speech in Angela Bourke’s book ‘The Burning of Bridget Cleary’, so it was used frequently in late 19th-century Tipperary. It’s certainly still used today.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks, Brendan. There’s nothing under after in my copy of Fowler’s text (or in The King’s English). But the lines you quote appear in the second edition edited by Gowers. He says English novelists’ commonest mistake is to use the after perfect to mean someone wants to do something or is about to, which more or less tallies with the divergent interpretations of I’m after getting a cup of tea reported by Harris 1982.

      To say someone had a right to meaning ‘should have’ is in my idiolect; I must have got it from my parents and maybe my extended family.

  14. M E Blockley says:

    Does the Irish “after” perfect have a measurable half-life or expiration date? The American “hot news” perfect was often illustrated with breaking news expressions, like “the President has been shot,” that would sound distinctly odd used a couple of hours after the event. There’s even a book with that sentence as title, on the attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981. How long after being after a cup of tea is being after a cup of tea?

    • Stan Carey says:

      Good question. It definitely has a half-life, but I don’t know how measurable it is, and it probably varies quite a lot from person to person. For me, it’s generally restricted to minutes, but it could be extended a little if the past event bears directly upon the present discussion.

  15. […] interest, especially to English Language teachers, will be his post from 14 March 2016 about the ‘after perfect’ aspect in Irish English. For those of you interested in reading more about variations in Irish English […]

  16. wisewebwoman says:

    I enjoyed this Stan, never seen/heard this analysis of the “after” usage so familiar to me, very well done.

    I’m after wondering did the word “afters” (i.e. dessert) ever feature in your childhood. It was always used in my house growing up.
    XO
    WWW

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks, WWW. I did hear (and sometimes use) afters, but more usually it was dessert. Or my siblings and I would ask for ‘something sweet’ or ‘a sweet thing’ or even ‘a thing in the press’, meaning chocolate from the cupboard. I remember finding it strange to learn that pudding is used in BrE to refer to any dessert, not a particular dish.

      • John Cowan says:

        That always seems deeply weird to Americans, for whom pudding is far more specific. On the other hand, we find it strange that The Rest Of You have a lexical gap where the American use of candy goes: sweet is too broad, choc too narrow. (In AU and NZ there is lolly in this role, generalized from lollipop, just as candy is generalized from the sense ‘crystallized sugar’, rock candy in AmE.)

  17. […] are two more I’m just after reading, in Mary Beckett’s short story collection A Belfast Woman, from the story of the same […]

  18. Sioe says:

    Talamh an Éisc (tall ‘ov on Ays’k) – the fishing ground – Newfoundland

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