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President Eisenhower had a strategic vision, the Domino Theory. If Vietnam would fall, other countries in Southeast Asia would fall too.

A lecturer (native speaker) said it on a lesson. Using would confuses me. For me it should be at least "If Vietnam were to fall." And in the orthodox way it should be "If Vietnam had fallen, other countries would have fallen too."

  • Nice observation. This might hint how native speakers actually deal with hypothetical thoughts. (At least it hints that the Conditionals I, II, and III are insufficient.) I am eager to hear from native speakers too. – Damkerng T. Dec 11 '13 at 8:54
  • My guess: The first sentence gives you the accurate point of time. The second sentence is written in the view of that point of time. It's future, so to speak. - This, at least, is how it would be in German and I wouldn't be surprised if English and German handle it equally. – Em1 Dec 11 '13 at 9:31
  • @DamkerngT. - We need to be careful about what we hear in conversation (even in a formal lecture) and what we see in print. Only the latter offers a chance to proofread, revise, and improve. Personally, I'd use: If Vietnam fell, other countries in Southeast Asia would fall too, but I wouldn't bat an eyelid at what the professor said. – J.R. Dec 11 '13 at 10:20
  • I think Eisenhower used would because that's want he wanted it to do- in the same way that you might say, "If only the cord would reach over to the sofa I could keep my laptop plugged in while watching this movie." – Jim Dec 12 '13 at 4:11
  • Note that there is a certain dialect of American English that was prevalent during parts of the 20th century, used by some members of the upper classes. I read somewhere that this dialect originated in America and contains archaic usage (like involving "shall", "should" and "would"), and imitations of British English. The pronunciation is very clear. For instance the aspirated H is clearly produced. "Why don't you .." comes out as "W..hay don't you". Watch any old movie from the 1940's and you're likely to hear some of this. – Kaz Dec 15 '13 at 4:28
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+50

This question has been under my mind from the start. I know the sentence sounds right, but couldn't explain why. Once I saw Kaz's answer, I read it and I totally agree with the answer, especially the part:

We can understand it as simply conditionally relating two clauses, which are expressed as a past subjunctive form of "to will": a subjunctive, irrealis form of the sentence "If Vietnam will fall, other countries will fall" ...

What I thought was not fully answered is the reason "why" the construct If ... will ..., ... will ... can be used, and "how" one could use it.

Today, I read Swan's Practical English Usage again, and now I think I've found a good answer.

In Swan's book, there are a handful of entries involved,

262 if (7): other structures found in spoken English
262.1 would in both clauses
Conditional would is sometimes used in both clauses of an if-sentence. This is very informal, and is not usually written. It is common in spoken American English.

which is close, but I think is not quite related to this question, except for that How would we feel if this would happen to our family? is acceptable as mentioned.

The treatment of if ... will is explained exclusively under the entry 260. Here is a summary,

260 if (5): if ... will
260.1 results -- We'll go home now if it will make you feel better.

260.2 'if it is true now that ...' -- If prices will really come down in a few months, I'm not going to buy one now.

260.3 indirect questions: I don't know if ... -- I don't know if I'll be ready in time.

260.4 polite requests -- If you will come this way, I'll show you your room.
(Would can be used to make a request even more polite.)

260.5 insistence -- If you will eat so much, it's not surprising you fell ill.

In my opinion, the entry 260.1 answers this question in particular.

260.1 results
We use will with if to talk about what will happen because of possible future actions - to mean 'if this will be the latter result'. Compare:
- I'll give you £100 if I win the lottery. (Winning the lottery is a condition - it must happen first.)
- I'll give you £100 if it'll help you to go on holiday. (The holiday is a result - it follows the gift of money.)

Back to the sentence in questioned: "If Vietnam would fall, other countries in Southeast Asia would fall too." I read Vietnam would fall the first time as a speculation. Reading 260.1, I turned to believe that it is more likely that the lecturer was saying that President Eisenhower said this in a context that Vietnam would fall is a result. I'm not sure which condition it would result from, but since this is about the Domino theory, I believe that it might be a result of some action, or more likely a result from not doing some action.

Here is how I imagine what the lecturer might have wanted to say:

We cannot overlook this matter. If Vietnam would fall (result from overlooking), other countries in Southeast Asia would fall too (result from Vietnam had fallen).

  • I don't believe President Eisenhower ever said this, it was the lecturer talking about President Eisenhower's views. Read the OP's question again. – Peter Shor Dec 20 '13 at 14:50
  • Then it must be the lecturer's interpretation. I will edit my answer. – Damkerng T. Dec 20 '13 at 14:56
  • Addendum: Two years passed. Time flies. I just found a similar sentence expressed in the same pattern (If ... would ... would ...) in a book. Painless American History by Curt Lader. At this moment, I don't think 260.1 is really relevant. (Though the speculated interpretation wasn't that bad, and not at all impossible.) It just an informal, spoken way to phrase it. (In other words, the entry 262.1 suffices, and in standard English, we'd use If Vietnam fell (or were to fall) ..., ... would fall (too).) – Damkerng T. May 22 '16 at 6:28
  • A similar question: If the lava will come down as far as this, we will evacuate these houses.. Apparently, the pattern If ... will ... will ... used in the way described in 260.1 sounds unnatural/ungrammatical to some native speakers, as evident in this question. – Damkerng T. May 22 '16 at 6:40
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This ties in to the recent question: Why "Would you mind if I asked you something?" is correct?

What is going on here is that we have a conditional "if" on a clause which is based on the modal verb combination "will fall". Since this is in an irrealis mood, the verb goes into the subjunctive form. And because the other clause ("other countries ... would fall ...") is in the past, it also goes into the past to agree with that clause.

The usage has somewhat of an archaic ring to it, similar to uses like "Oh if I would be rich", or "Would that he be master". In general, there used to be more flexibility in the language with the verbs "shall", and "will" and their past participles.

Through modern eyes, the sentence looks as if it is derived from the structure "if X will [verb], Y will [verb]" which is not used very much in English. When we relate two future events together in modern English, we use the present tense for one of them (in English, present tense denotes future actions in some contexts like this one!). So the canonical sentence is "If X [verb]s, Y will [verb]":

If you eat my candies, I will be upset.

* If you will eat my candies, I will be upset.

Since the will-will structure is odd, so is the would-would structure:

* If you would eat my candies, I would be upset.

So the preferred canonical sentence is:

If Vietnam falls, other countries in South Asia will fall too.

And from this form we can derive other tenses. For instance, we can hoist it into the irrealis mood without changing the meaning, by changing both clauses to the past subjunctive form:

If Vietnam fell, other countries in South Asia would fall too.

Note that the past subjunctive is the same as the past tense for "to fall": namely "fell". But for other verbs like "to be", it changes. For instance:

Indicative: If Vietnam is conquered ...
Irrealis: If Vietnam were conquered ... [Subjunctive past of "to be" = "were"].

Further, we can derive more tenses from our basic sentence:

If Vietnam had fallen, other countries in South Asia would have fallen too.

If Vietnam is falling, other countries in South Asia will be falling* too.

There is another way to express this, namely the "be + to [verb-infinitive]" form. The basic sentence for that is:

If Vietnam is to fall, other countries in South Asia will fall.

This form is not used. Speakers instinctively transform it into the past subjunctive, resulting in this very common form:

If Vietnam were to fall, other countries in South Asia would fall.

This "be + to [vinf]" form is quite restrictive in the formation of tense. There is no "will be to fall" or "would be to fall" or "have been to fall". There is "was to fall", which is a special form that has a meaning like "was expected to fall":

He was to finish the project by the 15th, but it overran right to the end of the month.

So to recap, the original sentence is a little archaic since it uses a would-clause as a conditional:

If Vietnam would fall, other countries in Southeast Asia would fall too.

It can be understood as being an older form of these modern usages:

If Vietnam {fell | were to fall}, other countries in Southeast Asia would fall too. [Subjunctive.]

If Vietnam falls, other countries in Southeast Asia will fall too. [Indicative.]

We can understand it as simply conditionally relating two clauses, which are expressed as a past subjunctive form of "to will": a subjunctive, irrealis form of the sentence "If Vietnam will fall, other countries will fall" whose meaning is easy to understand, but which is somewhat grammatically odd to the modern ear.

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I believe there is a region in the American Midwest where many people habitually put would in conditional clauses, as the speaker did in your question. It is mentioned in the Wikipedia article on differences between British and American English, although they don't identify it with a specific region of the U.S. This is generally considered incorrect. Avoid doing it.

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