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My question relates to hypothetical situations in the past; however, I am looking at it from a narrative perspective, where the outcomes of past events are presented as uncertain.

Traditionally, to hypothesise about an event that didn't occur in the past, we use a combination of the past-tense auxiliary 'had' followed by the modal auxiliary 'would' and the bare-infinitive auxiliary 'have':

[1] If you had studied, you would have passed the exam.

This is often called the 'third conditional,' which is discussed in the following article: https://www.grammar-monster.com/glossary/conditional_sentences.htm.

Conversely, we use the so-called 'second conditional' to talk about an unlikely event that pertains to the current moment, not a time frame that has passed. This construction uses the past-tense form of a lexical verb and the modal 'would' without an auxiliary as complement:

[2] If you studied, you would pass the exam.

These are quite simple concepts, but something that is less clear is which construction to choose when writing a past-tense narrative. Though these stories are presented in the context of the past, the events are effectively transpiring as they are read.

See these next two examples, and consider what sounds more logical:

[3] He thought about carrying the box down the stairs, and if it were lighter, he would. Alas, it was not, so he left it behind.

[4] He thought about carrying the box down the stairs, and if it had been lighter, he would have. Alas, it was not, so he left it behind.

In Example [3], I use the 'second conditional.' The intention is to show that the opportunity for him to carry the box is still on the table, but the likelihood of him doing so is low, as it is too heavy.

In Example [4], I use the 'third conditional.' This implies that the situation has passed, and the opportunity to carry the box is no longer available.

The problem with Example [4], as you might be able to guess, is that it implies that the situation involving the box has ended, but we can clearly see that it hasn't. The sentence following the 'third conditional' explicitly references the box in the past tense, not the 'past perfect.'

Because of this, I would gravitate toward using the construction in Example [3], but I have reservations. The 'second conditional' is often used in the context of the present to hypothesise, so it almost sounds as though we have changed tense or are speaking about a future event in the past (the latter of which would be the case if we changed 'is' to 'were' and 'will' to 'would').

Grammatically, I know that 'would' is the past-tense form of 'will,' so this shouldn't be an issue. However, I would prefer to have a second opinion.

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  • I don't understand why you say that Example [4] implies that the situation involving the box has ended, but we can clearly see that it hasn't. I'd say that it has ended.
    – BillJ
    Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 11:56
  • My rationale behind this is that the the conditional sentence uses the perfect aspect, whereas the one that follows uses the simple past. I understand what you mean, though. If that sentence is perfectly acceptable, I am more interested in validity of the other one and whether there is a preferred choice. In most literature written in past tense, I can't find a discernible logic to the choice of second or third conditional. Robert Ludlum, for example, writes in The Bourne Identity (a book written in the past tense) 'How would one react?', which is intended to be hypothetical, not past future.
    – MJ Ada
    Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 12:15

2 Answers 2

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Example 4 is correct rather than example 3.

I get that you are worrying that, EVEN NOW, the box may still be above stairs and he may still be alive and healthy enough to carry the box down the stairs, and so on. Therefore, there are circumstances imaginable under which it is possible NOW that he will eventually carry the box down the stairs.

But language does not work with that kind of computer-like rigidity. Language deals with time that is relevant to what is being described, not the time-space continuum of general relativity.

In terms of the time relevant to the narrative, he did not take the box down the stairs at the past moment being discussed. Presumably, the failure to take the box downstairs at that instant is relevant to something later in the narrative (because irrelevancies are not mentioned in well constructed narratives).

In short, he NEVER took the box down the stairs when it might have been relevant to do so. We are talking about historically and humanly relevant time rather physicists’ time.

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  • Thanks for your answer. Could I ask your opinion on the Robert Ludlum example that I provided in response to BillJ's comment? 'How would one react?' I think his book is a large factor in my confusion, as he uses the second conditional multiple times in the context of the past tense. As mentioned in my previous comment, he is not referring to a future time in the past, which would make 'would' the past-tense substitute for 'will' in the first conditional. It's clear that he is speaking hypothetically, yet he doesn't use the third conditional as your comment implies that he should.
    – MJ Ada
    Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 14:45
  • @MJAda Context is all. For example, in “Tom wondered how Jane would react,” the future is not the true future relative to when you are reading, but rather a future relative to a past instant when Tom was wondering. The concept of time in English grammar is a relative concept and contextually dependent. Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 15:25
  • I believe what you're saying is that my example doesn't leave any contextual room for future possibility? Therefore, there are circumstances where 'would' is more acceptable than 'would have' because, as in Ludlum's example, it is plausible (even if it's not likely) that someone could react to the contextual circumstances. In my scenario, there is no foreseeable chance that the individual could encounter these exact circumstances again. Similar, yes. But not exact. If so, that makes perfect sense to me.
    – MJ Ada
    Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 16:17
  • @MJAda What I am saying is that the Ludlum example is free of any context so whether it is apt or meaningful is impossible to determine. Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 16:24
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    @MJAda So the meaning here is focused on the moment while he is considering this. We know (because the book probably continues for pages) that he must eventually reject that option. But the author is focusing the reader’s attention on that moment in the past when the dive was still a possibility, when the alternative path had not yet been chosen. Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 21:25
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From the question:

[3] He thought about carrying the box down the stairs, and if it were lighter, he would. Alas, it was not, so he left it behind. [...]

In Example [3], I use the 'second conditional.' The intention is to show that the opportunity for him to carry the box is still on the table, but the likelihood of him doing so is low, as it is too heavy. End of quote

There is a problem with the logic here. The minute you write: He thought, you situating the action in the past on the verbal timeline.

If the opportunity is still on the table, as you say, then, you'd need something like this:

  • He is thinking about carrying the box down the stairs, and if it were lighter, he would. Alas, it isn't, so he'll have to leave it behind.
    OR
  • He's been thinking about carrying the box down the stairs, and if it were lighter, he would.

The if-were clause can easily accompany the present continuous or perfect, given their relationship to the present. The iffness starts now and extends forward. If the iffness is a past situation, the if-clause would usually become past perfect followed by past conditional in the main clause.

The Ludlum sentence is: How would one react? There is an implied if clause situation there.

How would one react [if faced with a similar situation?] That is completely standard and is not a past tense. It is a conditional sentence. would in one clause and the simple past in the implied second clause.

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  • Thanks for your reply. My original post would likely benefit from me changing 'is still on the table' to 'was still on the table,' though that doesn't affect the validity of your point. Like Jeff Morrow, I believe you're saying that the conditional leaves no room for future possibility (i.e., the situation wherein he could lift the box had passed), which is why there is awkwardness in using the second conditional.
    – MJ Ada
    Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 16:29
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    @MJAda The conditional is only about future possibility, If I go, I will see him. If I went, I would see him. Using the conditional about the past: If I had gone, I would have seen him. That past conditional is about a future that could have occurred.
    – Lambie
    Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 16:55

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