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PEU1 580 tense simplification in subordinate clauses

Past (form) instead of would...

Would, like will, is avoided in subordinate clauses; instead, we generally use past verbs. This happens in if-clauses, and also after most other conjunctions.

If I had lots of money, I would give some to anybody who asked for it.
(NOT If I would have... who would ask for it.)

Would you follow me wherever I went?
(NOT ... wherever I would go?)

In a perfect world, you would be able to say exactly what you thought.
(NOT ... what you would think.)

I would always try to help anybody who was in trouble, whether I knew them or not.

I'm wondering why all these examples are in the past tense, not the present tense, as they sound more like direct speech of the present or future irrealis conditionals.

I would have thought they should be:

If I had lots of money, I would give some to anybody who asks for it.

Would you follow me wherever I go?

In a perfect world, you would be able to say exactly what you think.

I would always try to help anybody who is in trouble, whether I know them or not.

1. PEU = Michael Swan's, Practical English Usage.

  • The past tense is correct for unreal (irrealis) conditionals, so I'm not understanding the source of your confusing. See: englishpage.com/conditional/presentconditional.html en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irrealis_mood – relaxing Jul 11 '14 at 14:58
  • There are examples of that form (using past tense in the subordinate clause) in the link I gave. – relaxing Jul 11 '14 at 15:50
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    You've got it backwards: you are criticizing the forms based on your understanding of what the sentences mean. But those past forms mark all the sentences as irrealis, so you must adjust your understanding to that fact. – StoneyB Jul 11 '14 at 17:02
  • Sorry, I just got up. I hope I didn't sound as though I was criticizing anything and that's far from my intention. I apologize for that. @StoneyB – Kinzle B Jul 12 '14 at 2:01
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The past tense is allowed because at point in time at which you are deciding to do something (as described in the independent clause) the condition of doing something will have already been satisfied.

Imagine saying the first sentence as you in the future, in which case you would be speaking in the present tense: If I have lots of money, I would give some to anybody who asked for it.

Somebody has asked for it (in the past) and I (presently) have lots of money, so I will give some to them.

  • Please let me get the use of the word allowed in your first line. Does it mean that there are multiple posibilities of tenses that can be used, including OP's? – Lucian Sava Jul 11 '14 at 15:45
  • There might be multiple tenses that can be used. However, what I meant to convey is that the verb tense combinations used in OPs examples from PEU are valid simplifications of OPs suggested changes which are valid as well. In this case, I'm using a connotation of 'allowed' that means 'valid.' – Obfuskater Jul 11 '14 at 16:04
  • @ZhanlongZheng - Can you elaborate, and explain what you think is erroneous? – J.R. Jul 11 '14 at 23:45
  • @J.R. I feel the examples in PEU are not something that someone would be more likely to communicate. – Kinzle B Jul 12 '14 at 3:38
  • @ZhanlongZheng: These example are indeed the way people actually speak. – Obfuskater Jul 12 '14 at 3:45
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It is a simple matter of sequence of tenses. Compare your examples to these:

If he has lots of money, he will give some to anybody who asks for it.

Will you follow me wherever I go?

When you meet your friends, you will be able to say exactly what you think.

I will always try to help anybody who is in trouble, whether I know them or not.

The examples from your question use past tenses, that is why the verbs you are asking about are in the past.

The reason to choose unreal conditionals in sentences 1 and 3 should be clear (sentence 1 - he does not have lots of money, sentence 3 - it is not a perfect world). The other two have been discussed in other questions recently, my opinion is that "will" makes the speaker sound more determined, while "would" makes the sentence sound more tentative.

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