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It is often said (as here and here) that 'were to V' in if-clauses represents an unlikely future in a hypothetical world, and must be accompanied by a hypothetical main clause having 'would', 'could', etc. But using 'if we were to V' along with a main clause representing a real situation is dime a dozen.

Here are just a few examples found at Google News with the search word 'if we were to':

(1) If we travel anywhere through space at significant fractions of the speed of light (almost certainly a requirement for interstellar travel), then impacting interstellar dust or larger objects like space debris or micrometeoroids could be disastrous. Even in the short trips we made during the space shuttle program, more than 100 shuttle windows were replaced after being chipped or cracked by space debris. Traveling to Proxima Centauri would be over a 100 million times the distance, and we'd almost certainly run into something.

Fortunately, actual asteroid collisions would be fairly rare. If we were to encounter any large obstacles, the same Project Daedalus that conceived of a fusion-powered spacecraft proposed using drones to eject small particles that would sweep those obstacles away. It's also been suggested that magnetic superconductors could divert the smaller dust particles away from a hypothetical spacecraft.

(Source) Here, the verb proposed is in the past tense simply to refer to a past time, not a hypothetical situation.

And the following examples employ present-tense main clauses:

(2) The issue of immigration is tied to another ambition for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: passing a large-scale infrastructure bill. It’s no secret that the nation’s infrastructure is crumbling. Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States a D+ for the state of its drinking water, bridges, railways, and power lines, among other physical social structures.

“Today, if we were to go out and start an infrastructure project, we don’t have the people to do the work!” said Donohue.

(Source)

(3) But it sure won’t look good. The White House has already begun working to counter bad public perception.

“And so what we’ll say, if we were to see that negative number: ‘Well sure, it was negative, but if you adjust for the furlough, it looks like another plus-200 month or something like that,'” Council of Economic Advisers chairman Kevin Hassett told reporters last week at the White House.

(Source)

This is what Steph Curry said about Raptors.

(4) “It’s 0-0 from here,” Curry said. “The sweep doesn’t mean nothing in terms of when the lights are the brightest on the biggest stage in the playoffs. Everything’s different. We’ll remember how tonight was. It’s a tough vibe, but they don’t get any extra points if we were to face them in the Finals.”

(Source)

In case Steph Curry's English is not good enough, here's what Tiffany Li, resident fellow with Yale Law School’s Information Society Project, says:

(5) “We’re trying to make this distinction–are we living in a simulation, or are we not?” he says. “Maybe there is no difference.”

Li concurs.

Even if we were to someday find out we’re living in the Matrix, there is literally nothing to suggest that there’s a way out of that,” she says. “There’s nowhere to escape to. It doesn’t make sense.”

(Source) FYI, Li's profile is here. Her education is:

She has a J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, where she was a Global Law Scholar, and a B.A. in English from University of California Los Angeles, where she was a Norma J. Ehrlich Alumni Scholar. She has also studied at Oxford University (England) and Fudan University (China).

QUESTION: Can you use 'were to' in if-clauses to freely represent a real situation?

  • All of these sound like mistakes to me. In other words, I'm not convinced by these examples that this is a commonly used construction. – Juhasz Jan 11 at 14:39
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Yes and no

I think what you're seeing is a lot of people talking (or being quoted) and mixing the tenses/moods of their clauses. In day to day speech, this kind of error is extremely common and many listeners/readers wouldn't even think it was "wrong" because they hear these kinds of mistakes so often.

So, from a strictly "grammar rules" sense, those sentences are wrong. From an everyday dialogue sense, nobody will notice.


By the way, the first example is all in the future subjunctive mood:

Fortunately, actual asteroid collisions would be fairly rare. If we were to encounter any large obstacles, the same Project Daedalus that conceived of a fusion-powered spacecraft proposed using drones to eject small particles that would sweep those obstacles away.

In other words "If, in the future, we encountered any large obstacles, the [system of using drones to eject small particles] would sweep those obstacles away." This all in a future, not past or present tense.

  • @list I can see all your new versions (except maybe 3) being said by someone in everyday speech, if that's what you're asking. – rpeinhardt Jan 12 at 11:25
  • That's my point. The rules are often broken in speech. So, when the question asks "Can we do this," my answer was yes and no. The rules say no but, in practice, it happens all the time. – rpeinhardt Jan 12 at 18:15
  • Did you read mine? I feel like I've answered the question "can you break the rules of using the correct tense with "were to" twice now. But obviously not. Perhaps someone who better understands what you're looking for will provide an answer. Sorry. – rpeinhardt Jan 13 at 1:20

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