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Would, could, and might can be used to express possibility or uncertainty in the present or future (they are the "softer" and more "indirect", or more "polite" forms of will, can, and may in this usage, I believe), but I don't know whether the subordinate clauses should follow the rules of the sequence of tenses or not.

Let me explain what I mean:

(1) "I am not sure I want to go to the party. But if Betty invites/invited me, I would go." =>I want to use "would" to express future uncertainty.

(2) "This thing is mysterious. I would imagine Tom is/was able to explain." =>I want to use "would" to express present uncertainty in my thinking

(3) "I have an idea. We could tell him that we will/would not let the secret out so that he will/would trust us" =>I want to use "could" to express future uncertainty or possibility.

Does the sequence of tenses apply in scenarios where we use would, could, might in a present or future sense?

In cases of expressing possibility or being more indirect, do we just treat would, could, and might the same way as will, can, and may in terms of the sequence of tenses?

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I might have some helpful things to say about these.

(1) "I am not sure I want to go to the party. But if Betty invites/invited me, I would go."

I'll point out that it is somewhat important here to not choose But if Betty invited me, I will go. unless you specifically mean if Betty has already invited me, I will go. - and because we are using "will", this is a certain future.

(2) "This thing is mysterious. I would imagine Tom is/was able to explain."

Here, be careful not to use was with I would imagine - don't say I would imagine Tom was able to explain. It places his ability strictly in the past. You might see something like, for example, I wouldn't be surprised if Tom was able to explain though, because was matches with the surprised (which isn't in the past, but is a hypothetical)

(3) "I have an idea. We could tell him that we will/would not let the secret out so that he will/would trust us"

You would probably use tell him that we will - it is a stronger assurance, and you are able to give it; if you do not, it seems a bit weak. Phrasing choices later might influence this a bit, though. Somewhat similarly, it is a bit better to use will for the second choice, too; this is your predicted outcome, so your listener assumes you could be wrong; you can't know the future. So just go all out, and claim the result you predict. It's normal; you're plainly trying to convince them.

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  • Thank you for your answer. Do you mean the subordinate clause of (1) can be in present tense or any other tense according to what I want to say, right? Do you mean that the tenses in subordinate clauses in the examples isn't forced to be "backshifted"? And they can be any tenses according to the meaning I want to convey? For example, if I use "would" in (3), I sound more unsure about it, but using "will" sounds like I have confidence that the thing will happen, am I right? – vincentlin Jan 20 at 9:31
  • So can I say when we use them in cases like these, we can see these modal verbs as "will", "can", and "may" so that we don't have to backshift verbs in the subordinate clauses? – vincentlin Jan 20 at 9:31
  • Yes, I think you are understanding. I'll read it again carefully to be sure. – Justin Stafford Jan 20 at 9:44
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    But usually you don't choose If Betty invited me, I would go. - I guess you can, but normally I do only if I follow with some other hypothetical - If Betty invited me, I would go, if you gave me a ride. – Justin Stafford Jan 20 at 9:55
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    Let us continue this discussion in chat. – Justin Stafford Jan 20 at 11:01

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