Imagine when people are giving suggestions or ideas, discussing general ideas. What type of tense should be used when talking about a sequence of events.(something happens first then other things happen.)

For example:

I say "If people don't understand your English, they would ask you what you said".

Because it is a general thing(and clearly the verb "say" should happen earlier even if the whole thing is just a general concept), what tense should the word "said" be in? past tense or present tense?

1 Answer 1


Your example is a complicated combination of mood and tense. If you use "if" in the indicative mood like you did in your example, it is typically followed by the future tense:

I say, "If people don't understand your English, they will ask you what you said.

On the other hand, if you use conditional mood in your main clause, as you did in your example, it is typically preceded by the past subjunctive:

I say, "If people didn't understand your English, they would ask you what you said."

But no matter how you slice up this pie, you end up with "what you said" in the last subordinate clause. The only other possible option is past perfect: "ask you what you had said." The saying clearly took place in the past. And the past perfect emphasizes that it took place before the "people didn't understand."

  • Just to ensure about the usage "would". Can I use it as a polite way to say "will" because "would" sound not so blunt, and I feel like it is more polite.
    – vincentlin
    Dec 7, 2017 at 7:23
  • No, because the meaning would change in this sense if you used "would". I agree with joiedevivre; it would take the past subjunctive then.
    – Nick
    Dec 7, 2017 at 7:34
  • As @NicholasCastagnola said, you can't use them interchangeably in this context, because they have specific grammatical functions. You can use would to "soften" a question in other contexts, though. "Will you give me some change" and "Would you give me some change" mean about the same thing. "Would" sounds more polite, and it's because it's associated with the irrealis moods! It implies that it's more okay to say "no." Dec 7, 2017 at 7:44
  • Yes, using the past subjunctive of "will" in questions, which is "would", is much politer; however, it doesn't work in your case. Now, that's not to say that one cannot mix the simple present indicative with the past subjunctive, but that gets complicated: "If that should happen, there could be serious problems." In this case, I'm using "should" to replace the present subjunctive, but "would" in the apodosis is in the past subjunctive. "If you are right, I would be in trouble if I went ahead with it." Here, "are" is in simple present, but "would" and "went" are in the past subjunctive.
    – Nick
    Dec 7, 2017 at 7:52

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