The following conditional sentence is hard to reconcile with traditional grammar. I'm wondering what makes it okay as a conditional sentence and how to make sense of it in a way that conforms to grammar. Preferably, I'd prefer to see similar examples.

Harley will make his idea a reality when he launches himself into the Atlantic in a 24-foot boat. It’s designed to handle less-than-ideal conditions. “If the boat were to capsize, it’s designed to re-right itself,” Harley said.


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    Is Harley really a sailor? I'm used to hearing people who use such boats (they are not new) saying e.g. 'it's designed to right itself'. Is that your problem? What is the 'traditional grammar' that you think is violated? Jun 3, 2022 at 8:39
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    Probably because native speakers are not taught about 'conditionals', which are mainly a teaching tool used to teach English as a foreign language. Native speakers can deviate from these 'rules' and often nobody really notices. Jun 3, 2022 at 9:10
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    Well, I'm going to shun it as well, except perhaps to mention that many formal usages taught as 'rules' to ESL students are partly or completely ignored by native speakers, especially in casual or informal speech. The subjunctive is very widely ignored. You may consider the 'rules' to be examples of the 'pedagogic lie' (or 'lie-to-children'), a useful oversimplification that starts one on the path to better knowledge. For example, in arithmetic we happily teach children that 'you cannot take 3 from 2' because we are confident that someone will later introduce them to negative numbers Jun 3, 2022 at 9:43
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    I don't see anything syntactically questionable here The writer made the stylistic choice to use subjunctive rather than plain If the boat capsizes, it's designed to re-right itself because that more strongly implies that capsizing is relatively unlikely. Much the same could be said about tautologous re-right rather than plain right, where that "unnecessary" prefix re- more strongly emphasises "returning to previous state" as well as being "the right way up". Jun 3, 2022 at 15:55
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    @Apollyon: As Colin says, the "verb mood" of two clauses don't need to match if the second clause isn't a "consequence" of the first. Consider, If you were to develop some dread disease, [at least] you live in a country with a sophisticated health care system. Maybe not the best example, but things like that are perfectly natural in English. Jun 4, 2022 at 10:36

2 Answers 2


Harley has put things in an order which unfortunately means that, if you group the words together in the most natural way, you get an absurd result. Here's one way to say what Harley really meant:

"The boat's designed to re-right itself if it were to capsize."

That is, the conditional "if it were to capsize" is meant as part of the phrase saying what the boat's designed to do.


There's nothing odd about the sentence, except that (as is reasonably common in everyday English), the second clause is not the consequent of the conditional at all, but a (logically) independent sentence whose connection with the conditional can be filled in by real-world experience.

A logically complete version would be If the boat were to capsize, it would re-right itself, because it’s designed to do so.

It's similar to sentences like If you want anything, I'll be just down the corridor.

  • Is " If you want anything, I'll be just down the corridor" equivalent to " In case you want anything, I'm telling you I'll be just down the corridor"?
    – Apollyon
    Jun 3, 2022 at 10:38
  • Yes, @Apollyon, it is. It would be odd to include "I'm telling you" though.
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 3, 2022 at 15:12
  • There's an implicit If such-and-such were to happen, it wouldn't matter, because the system is designed to cope with that possibility (where using the subjunctive rather than If that did happen carries to implication in the remote eventuality rather than plain if/when). Jun 3, 2022 at 17:53
  • @FumbleFingers I was looking for examples involving counterfactual if-clauses with then-clauses omitted.
    – Apollyon
    Jun 4, 2022 at 2:01
  • @Apollyon: I'm not sure what you mean by "with then-clauses omitted". The actual word "then" isn't present in, for example, if something untoward were to happen, we have a clear path to dealing with it, but surely it's always implied. That's regardless of whether the second assertion refers to the consequence of the first one becoming true, or simply makes some secondary associated assertion which only becomes contextually relevant if the first situation arises. Jun 4, 2022 at 11:19

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