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From To Kill a Mockingbird:

In later years, I sometimes wondered exactly what made Jem do it, what made him break the bonds of “You just be a gentleman, son,” and the phase of self-conscious rectitude he had recently entered. ... What Jem did was something I’d do as a matter of course had I not been under Atticus’s interdict, which I assumed included not fighting horrible old ladies. We had just come to her gate when Jem snatched my baton and ran flailing wildly up the steps into Mrs. Dubose’s front yard, ... He did not begin to calm down until he had cut the tops off every camellia bush Mrs. Dubose owned, until the ground was littered with green buds and leaves.

I wonder why the author uses "I would do" and "had I not been" at the same time. I'm not sure how these two constructions interact with each other here.

What does "I would do" refer to? Why is it not "I would have done"? I assume "had I not been" refers to the time of the paragraph.

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    @Lambie Hi, the "had I not been" is essentially "if I had not been" right? Then doesn't that make it a conditional? The author/narrator is saying "What Jem did was something I would do if I had not been under Atticus’s interdict (at the time of the event)". That seems like a mixture of type 2 and 3.
    – AIQ
    Commented Nov 21, 2019 at 22:29
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    Yes, OK, you're right and have answered your own question. Yes, a mixture. And not great.
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 21, 2019 at 22:33

2 Answers 2

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So Jem was a gentleman, until he wasn't.

Here are some definitions:

what made him break ... the phase of self-conscious rectitude he had recently entered.

"Rectitude" means "honesty and correct moral behaviour" (Cambridge).

... I’d do as a matter of course ...

"If something is done 'as a matter of course', it is a usual part of the way in which things are done and is not special" (Cambridge).

... had I not been under Atticus’s interdict ...

An "interdict" is "an official instruction from a law court telling someone that they are not allowed to do something" (Cambridge).


Answers:

Jem destroyed that old lady's front yard with the baton.

The narrator is saying (now in the present) that if they had not been under Atticus’s interdict (at the time of the event), then they (= the narrator) too would do the same thing (= as Jem did). Note that this is a mixed conditional and not strictly a type II or a type III.

I wonder why the author uses "I would do" and "had I not been" at the same time. I'm not sure how these two constructions interact with each other here.

I think it would make sense if you rephrased it like this

What Jem did (= referring to destroying the front yard) was something I would do if I had not been under Atticus’s interdict ...

or like this

If I had not been under Atticus’s interdict, I would do what Jem did.

I just rearranged the clauses: "if clause" first and then the "main clause".

What does "I would do" refer to? Why is it not "I would have done"? I assume "had I not been" refers to the time of the paragraph.

Here "I would do" is used to say that the narrator would destroy the front yard like Jem, if the narrator had not been under the interdict. You use "would" to say that someone was willing to do something ... You use "would" when saying what someone intended/wanted to do (Collins).

"I would have done" would be more accurate, I think. That would then make the sentence a type III conditional.

Type III conditional: If I had not been under Atticus’s interdict, I would have done what Jem did.

If they had left earlier, they would have arrived on time.

"Had I not been" refers to the time of the even when Jem destroyed the yard.


Mixed conditionals:

"Often, things that did or did not happen in the past have results which continue or are still important in the present. We can emphasize this by using if with a past perfect verb, and would in the main clause." - Cambridge Dictionary, Conditionals: if

  • If I had not met Charles, I would not be here now. (I met Charles so I’m here now.)

"The mixed type conditional is used to refer to an unreal past condition and its probable result in the present. In mixed type conditional sentences, the if clause uses the past perfect, and the main clause uses the present conditional." - Mixed Type Conditional

  • If we had looked at the map we wouldn't be lost.
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  • Thank you. It'd be great if your answer said something about the meaning of "I would do" in that paragraph. Chris Mack seems to have already answered this question, but your answer is so detailed I'd like to accept it.
    – athlonusm
    Commented Nov 23, 2019 at 17:32
  • @athlonusm I edited my answer and wrote a bit more on that in the Answers section.
    – AIQ
    Commented Nov 23, 2019 at 22:53
  • Thank you, but I was talking about the meaning of "I would" in the context of the paragraph. I know what it means by itself. I was confused about its meaning in relation to "had I not been": how can "I would do," which refers to the time of writing, be used together with "had I not been," which refers to the time of the paragraph? At the time of writing, the author is an adult; at the time of the paragraph, she's in elementary school. Chris Mack's answer explains that (if you agree with him), but I appreciate the effort you've put into yours.
    – athlonusm
    Commented Nov 24, 2019 at 15:00
  • @athlonusm Oh I see, yes I get what you mean now. And I agree with Chris Mack's answer. It is well explained - I am afraid I can't add anything more than Chris already has. I would do had I understood what you meant before Chris wrote the answer.
    – AIQ
    Commented Nov 24, 2019 at 19:05
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I'd do

Here this refers to a more general sense of one's character, one's sense of "who I am", in a way that transcends time/place/situation. The "and therefore would have done at the time" is therefore implied, though not stated.

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