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.
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.
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!