In Good Condition

Once again, my musical bent intruded on the writing of this installment about the use of the conditional. We’re going to be focusing a lot on the word if today, which of course immediately made me think of this song from the early ’70s. But if you need something a bit more funky to get you going, here’s another good option

OK, yes, I admit it: I’m old. 

Anyway, most conditional sentences have an easily recognizable structure: they start with an if clause (phrase containing a subject and verb) that sets up a hypothetical world, then are rounded out by another clause describing what happens in that world.

Image by Paul Brennan from Pixabay

So let’s start out by looking at the if clause. Sometimes it describes a situation in which the speaker (or writer) is either leaving the options open or doesn’t know if the if clause is true or not. This is known as the open conditional:

If Kurt likes that song, he’ll watch the video. (The speaker doesn’t know if Kurt likes it or not, but is confident that if he does, he’ll watch the video.)

If Kurt liked that song, he watched the video. (Again, the speaker doesn’t know if Kurt liked it or not, but is that confident that if he did, he watched the video.)

In these two sentences the tenses of the verbs show only the time of the action, the same way that verb tense does in most of the sentences we usually construct: likes indicates action in the present; he’ll watch, the future; and liked and watched, action in the past. So verb tense rules in the open conditional are flexible and work pretty much normally. 

Image by songpon pirom from Pixabay

So far, so good. Things get more interesting, however, when we start exploring the opposite of the open conditional, called the remote conditional. Here the speaker either knows for certain that the hypothetical world created in the if clause is not true or thinks it very unlikely:

If Kurt liked that song, he would watch the video. (The speaker thinks it’s very unlikely that Kurt likes or liked it. The clause he would watch the video describes what might happen on the off chance that Kurt in fact likes or liked it.)

If Kurt had liked that song, he would have watched the video. (Again, the speaker thinks it’s very unlikely that Kurt liked it. And he would have watched the video implies that he didn’t watch it, serving as proof that he didn’t like the song.)

By the way, we saw this same concept of remoteness in our last installment on the irrealis mood. And, as with the irrealis, remoteness in the conditional is reflected in the verb tense.

Now let’s turn to those verb tenses, where we’ll find that the structure of the remote conditional is more rigid than that of the open. Notice that in the examples both if clauses are in past tense; as a matter of fact, in the second example it’s in the past perfect tense, the “past of the past”: had liked. In the second clauses, we have the auxiliary (“helping”) verb would, which is the past tense of will. Would is by far the most common past tense auxiliary to show up in the second clause, but it can also be should, could, or might—the past tense forms of shall, can, or may.

Now here’s what’s odd about the remote conditional: the use of the past tense in the if clause does not necessarily mean that the action happened in the past. Its only function is to mark remoteness. Notice that I said that in the first example’s if clause, If Kurt liked that song, that the speaker doesn’t think that Kurt likes or liked the song. In this case, we can’t determine the time of the action without more context.

But another example will show the tense oddness much more clearly:

If you waited until the singer’s birthday next week to post the video, you would get more views.  

Since we have next week in the if clause, clearly the action did not take place in the past. The past tense verb waited shows only the remoteness—that the speaker is pretty sure that the you addressed won’t wait to post the video.  

Finally, what about our example with that past perfect verb in the if clause?

If Kurt had liked that song, he would have watched the video.

Remember that in the remote conditional, the past tense shows only remoteness, not past time. So if we want to express that Kurt liked the song in the past, we have to take the past tense for remoteness and add another past tense to it. This gives us the past perfect (the “past of the past”), which can always be recognized by the auxiliary had.

By now your brain is probably ready about to explode—I know mine certainly is! The good news is that most native speakers of English construct these conditional sentences correctly most of the time. But it’s always a good idea to give them a second look to make sure that you’re conveying what you intended, particularly whether the if clause should be open or remote. There’s just one fairly common pitfall to avoid with the remote conditional: remember that the auxiliary would goes only in the second clause, never in the if clause:

Wrong: If you would have waited to post that video, you would have gotten more views.  

Right: If you had waited to post that video, you would have gotten more views.  

And if you can’t make heads or tails out of what I’ve said, here’s another explanation of the conditional that might help. Please feel free to leave a comment below with any questions or any good examples of conditionals you come across in your reading!

Shifting Moods


Hopefully your mood today is like the happy emoji in the picture. When I started drafting this post, I was smiling like that–until I got deeper into my research and discovered that I screwed up when I previewed the subject for you last time around. I said that the irrealis is a subset of the subjunctive mood, and a counterpart to the mandative subjunctive that we were talking about in that post. Well, it turns out—it’s not. The irrealis is actually a whole separate mood—hence the title of this installment. 

(That, by the way, is one of the things I love about doing these blogs—I learn a lot from the research!)

So let’s backpedal a little bit and finish up the subjunctive mood, and then we’ll go on to the irrealis. To review quickly, the mandative subjunctive we talked about last time is for demands, requirements, requests, recommendations, or suggestions, such as:

Last week Carol insisted that Pat go to the movies with her.

We request that the attendant lock the garage at night.

The same subjunctive form—the unmarked form of the verb, with no endings, no matter which person, or singular or plural—can also be used for hypothetical situations where there is a decent chance of the statement coming true, such as:   

Brian made back-up copies of the report lest it be accidentally deleted.

We made sure to stock up on supplies for fear that the hurricane hit hard. 

Jenny is always remarkably patient with her toddler, whether he be sleepy, grumpy, or rambunctious.

These might sound rather formal or just a bit strange—but they’re all correct. And of course they could all be written in the more everyday indicative mood, such as Jenny is always remarkably patient with her toddler, whether he is sleepy, grumpy, or rambunctious. Nevertheless, you can see that in each case there’s a reasonable chance that the hypotheticals could come true: the report could get deleted; the hurricane could hit hard; and Jenny’s little boy probably goes through all those moods (and many more) in the course of a typical day.


The irrealis (“not real”) mood, however, is for hypotheticals that are clearly not true or have very little chance of ever coming true. In English, the only place that the irrealis is grammatically marked is with the use of were, such as in this phrase that we say all the time without even thinking about it:

If I were you…

Have you ever heard anyone say If I was you? I’ve lived in several different regions of the U.S., and I don’t think I ever have. But you get the point—when you say If I were you, you clearly are not the other person to whom you’re speaking, nor will you ever be.

But how about this one:

If Blake were better qualified, he would get the job.

As opposed to:

If Blake was better qualified, he would get the job.

The first variant implies that Blake will most likely never be able to improve his qualifications enough, but the second leaves the possibility a bit more open. So this is another function of the irrealis mood’s were—to convey a sense of what grammarians term factual remoteness.

And that leads us very neatly into our closely related subject for next time: the conditional. Until then, be on the lookout for hypotheticals in both subjunctive and irrealis moods, paying particular attention to whether they’re situations that could reasonably come true or not. If you find some good examples, please share them below!

In the (Subjunctive) Mood


A few weeks ago, I got to do a fascinating interview (via Skype) with a PhD candidate in the UK. So what does that have to do with legendary Big Band leader Glenn Miller? The subject of the interview was one of the grammatical moods in English, namely, the subjunctive. Since I have a bit of a musical background, any mention of “mood” always reminds me of the iconic Glenn Miller tune “In the Mood.” (Click on the link if you’d like to listen to it while reading this post!)

But what IS the subjunctive mood? Unless you’re a hardcore grammar nerd, you might have never even heard of it—but if you’re a native speaker of American English, you probably use it correctly all the time. When we say that subjunctive is a mood, it means that it indicates the speaker’s attitude towards the verb. It’s not a tense (time category) such as present or past. In English, there are basically two varieties of subjunctive: mandative and irrealis. Today we’ll focus on the first one.

The mandative subjunctive is for demands, requirements, requests, recommendations, or suggestions. Its form is simple: it’s the unmarked form of the verb, with no endings. You can also think of it as the infinitive without to. In other words, it will always look exactly the same, no matter the person or whether it’s singular or plural:

I go                        We go

You go                  You go

He/she/it go        They go

As you look through these, they all probably look and sound fine—except for he/she/it go (as opposed to he/she/it goes). The only other time that mandative subjunctive is obvious is with be:

I be                         We be

You be                  You be

He/she/it be        They be

And those are the only times that it has a visibly different form in English. Otherwise, the mandative subjunctive is virtually undetectable—which is probably why most people are unaware of it.

So what does this look like in action? Check these out:

Last week Carol insisted that Pat go to the movies with her.

We request that the attendant lock the garage at night.

Here I’ve used third person singular (he/she/it) form to make the mandative subjunctive obvious: go instead of goes; lock instead of locks. In first or second person, here’s what it would look like:

Last week Carol insisted that I go to the movies with her.

We request that you lock the garage at night.

Although these look just like the usual forms for those verbs, they’re actually in mandative subjunctive mood. (BTW, the everyday mood we use most of the time, for statement of plain fact, is called indicative.)

And some examples with be:

Andrew suggested that I be notified of the travel delay.

Donald urges that you be ready for the hike.

Angela insists that they be kept in the loop.

What my UK colleague and I discovered during our interview is that, whereas speakers of American English tend to use the mandative subjunctive exactly as I’ve described, speakers of British English generally don’t. Instead, they tend to say: 

Last week Carol insisted that Pat should go to the movies with her.

Or, even more bizzarely:

Last week Carol insisted that Pat went to the movies with her.

The variation with should is OK to me, but the one with went just sounds so wrong!

Another interesting thing in the interview was that a sample sentence with be that my colleague showed me looked strange when I read it silently on the printed page, but when I read it aloud, it sounded fine. So if any of the above examples look odd, try reading them out loud!

Be on the lookout, but even more so on the listen out 😊 for these verb forms. Do these examples sound natural to you? If not, what do you usually tend to say? Feel free to comment below–let’s get a discussion going!

And I’ll be back next time with the other variety of subjunctive, the irrealis, which is used for talking about hypothetical or contrary-to-fact situation