'Were' irrealis is used for unreal, counter-factual, highly unlikely present or future.

And, 'were to' also refers to hypothetical situations and actions (Cambridge Grammar of English by Carter and McCarthy). So from my understanding and what I read in two other English grammar learning site (here and here) It should be only used in present or future reference.

But I found few examples of 'were to' in this site and in other books where they have been used with past tense.

  1. Used with 'in case':

Urquhart had taken the precaution of taking down the details from Simon's driving licence, just in case he were to continue to cause trouble and needed to be tracked down. (CGE)

My question is that 'in case' is usually followed by 'present simple' or 'simple past' for present time or past time respectively but if, for the sake of being very formal (CGE), we are putting 'were to' then it should be 'were to have +past participle' not the former as it is used in present or future time and here the sentence refers to past time.

  1. "Below the bridge, the fishermen started shouting that if Chaudhary were to jump, they would catch him and foil his attempt to end his life."

My question is that author has used past-tense narrative mode so why he used just 'were to' not 'were to have'?

And why we see cases of type-2 conditional being used in past narrative story when it doesn't talk about a thing which will stay true even in the present?

Edit - I have read a few answers given on somewhat similar questions and they say that you can only use type 2 conditionals in past tense narrative when it is timeless or not tied to specific event. But in all the cases the sentences were tied to specific Event and not timeless. But then I came across a sentence from a best seller 'If he ever decided to leave, they would suffer' when the whole story is written in past narrative style. So now I doubt the whole concept.

1 Answer 1


You are correct in noting that the perfect aspect (in this case "were to have" + past participle) is normally used to indicate earlier action. However, there are two reasons why these authors might have avoided it:

  1. In each case, the verb phrase describes action that happens after a previously mentioned action. In the first example, Simon's continuing occurs after Urquhart's taking down the details. In the second example, Chaudhary's jumping occurs after the fishermen's starting to shout. The authors may have worried that using the perfect aspect ("were to have continued" and "were to have jumped") would cause those actions to be perceived as happening earlier.

  2. English speakers and writers are often very loose with verb tenses, especially with the perfect aspect, and especially with the subjunctive mood. Sometimes the perfect aspect is required, but this is one of those situations in which a sentence sounds fine without it.

  • @MarclnManhattan Yesterday when I was reading 'the Alchemist', I found the same thing happening. Most of the story is written in the past-tense narrative style. And, whenever author used conditional where the conditional action about later time of the story. he used 'type-2' conditionals. Like 'if he ever decided to leave, they would suffer'. Here the main character was thinking about leaving his sheeps. If writer had used present tense narrative mode this sentence would have been fine but the whole paragraph he chose to wrote with past tense narrative mode and suddenly used type-2 not type-3
    – RADS
    Commented Jun 22, 2022 at 2:37
  • @MarclnManhattan I was reading the topic narration where it is a very common rule to write the modal verbs (Could, would, should, might) in indirect speech as it is if it appears in direct speech even when the reported verb is in past tense. So, does it mean that the same goes for irrealis and other conditionals. Modal verbs are not affected by tense they can only be affected by aspect. So, could (in the sense of less probability) can be used in the past narration without changing it to (could have) just like in 'narration'. I m applying the same theory now on 'were'.
    – RADS
    Commented Jun 24, 2022 at 1:46
  • @MarclnManhattan If we need to use a conditional talking about a character's past using past narrative mode we should use 'were to have/had +pp' in if clause and 'would have, could have) in main clause. And if we need to use conditional talking about character's present or future time described in past narrative mode then just using 'were' and 'would' in subordinate and main clause respectively is correct. Just like in the above two examples and those I found in the book 'the Alchemist'. Please give your thoughts on this
    – RADS
    Commented Jun 24, 2022 at 1:53
  • 1
    @RADS I don't think that I can give very good "thoughts" in a comment. If you'd like to ask about that issue, then it would probably be best for you to ask a new question. Commented Jun 24, 2022 at 13:13

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