from The Economist (https://www.economist.com/leaders/2018/08/25/the-way-forward-on-immigration-to-the-west?cid1=cust/ednew/n/bl/n/2018/08/23n/owned/n/n/nwl/n/n/na/146317/n)

A sensible approach would be to allow migrants to get public education and health care immediately, but limit their access to welfare benefits for several years.This may seem discriminatory, but migrants will still be better off than if they had stayed at home.

I am confused about the way author constructed the last sentence. In my opinion, As this is a situation applicable to either first conditional

migrants will still be better off than if they stay at home

or second conditional

migrants would still be better off than if they stayed at home.

2 Answers 2


The past-perfect form "if they had stayed at home" is normal in a counter-factual conditional: it implies that they did not stay at home, but this would be the consequence if they had done so.

A simple past would not have this sense: they might or might not have stayed at home.

I believe that ESL materials refer to this as the "third conditional", thogh this classification was unknown to me until I started reading this site regularly.

  • 1
    what is strange here is not had stayed(because they did not stay) but will still be better, it should be would still be better so why
    – Yves Lefol
    Aug 29, 2018 at 12:10
  • Hi, thanks for the reply. However I do not think the author was refering specifically to the past migration, rather he was offering some general suggestions to a general problem. i.e. I think this is a hypothetical about general truth, rather than some specific counterfactual past situation. That is why I believe the first or second conditional used for general "possible" present and future events is more appropriate.
    – jxhyc
    Aug 29, 2018 at 15:55
  • However, It seems that the sentence but migrants will still be better off than if they had stayed at home is a construction of comparison. Two hypothetical statements are compared, the first is with the modal verb will used in the sense of habitual actions, the second is with the subjunctive form of the verb stay having the sense of the past. The sentence is extremely formal with own syntax. It seems it would be better to grasp the meaning of it if it were composed with the subjunctive construction than they should have stayed without confusing if in such a case.
    – kngram
    Jul 10, 2020 at 14:54
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    Than they should have stayed barely makes sense, and certainly doesn't have the required meaning. (I can only read it with the should of obligation, but it still doesn't make sense after than). The if is essential to this construction (or, if you want to be formal, an inverted conditions had they stayed at home). The sentence is not particularly formal, and requires the conditional. "X would be the case if Y had not happened" is a very common pattern.
    – Colin Fine
    Jul 10, 2020 at 15:03
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    I don't know where you get the idea that "The syntax of the Comparison forbids the syntax of the Conditionals usually". The site you quote does not contain either the word comparison or the word than, Something I didn't mention is that the phrase could be expanded to better off than they would be if they had stayed at home, with no change of meaning.
    – Colin Fine
    Jul 12, 2020 at 13:26

I think you underestimate the effect of 'than' in the sentence, but with 'than' the sentence is no longer a classical conditional sentence like:

migrants would still be better off if they stayed at home.

With 'than' it's a comparison of two situations (scheme: A is ..er than B): a real one (even if yet to come) and a no longer possible one ('if they had stayed' - no longer possible; 'if they stayed' - still possible). That's why the rules for classical tense combinations in conditional clauses don't have to be observed. The if clause is an isolated statement about a no longer existing possibility.

The use of past perfect in the if clause clearly states that the sentence is about already arrived migrants, for whom the option to come or to stay no longer exists. Another support for this view is 'migrants will be better off'. 'migrants' have already migrated, not so 'possible/potential/prospective migrants'. Yes, the text is about a general situation, but about the general situation of migrants in their new country - not about the general situation of potential migrants in their original countries.

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