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Can anyone tell me the difference between the "if . . . were to (have) . . ." form and the second and third conditionals? They're all used to express an unlikely situation in the past, present or future, but I was wondering if they are interchangeable or have different usagess, and also if the "were to" form is accepted in formal writing.

e.g.:

  • If this band were to perform at the festival, so many people would come.
  • If this band perfomed at the festival, so many people would come.

or in the past:

  • If this band were to have performed at the festival, so many people would've come.
  • If this band had performed at the festival, so many people would've come.

Are those sentences grammatical, or was I wrong? And what are the differences between them?

  • The way you use so here could be an interesting topic for discussion (in a separate question, perhaps?). – snailcar Aug 29 '14 at 10:30
  • Or you can just tell me what's wrong with it? – user9940 Aug 29 '14 at 10:43
  • @user9940 I can't really give a good description in the space of a comment, but since you'd prefer to use comments, I'll try to keep it short: so as an intensifier here is informal and would typically be pronounced with sentence stress on so. In writing it's sometimes avoided or written with visual stress to avoid confusion with the so...that correlative construction, which is allowed in both formal and informal styles. – snailcar Sep 2 '14 at 21:06
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This use of "so many" is very informal.

The contraction "would've" is also informal.

In formal writing, you should either eliminate the "so", or explain a consequence of having "so many people" come, or eliminate the hypothetical. For example:

If this band were to perform at the festival, many people would come.

If this band were to have performed at the festival, many people would have come.

If this band had performed at the festival, many people would have come.

If this band were to perform at the festival, so many people would come that there would be huge traffic jams.

This band performed at the festival, so many people came.

I chose not to adapt the original post's second example. When I start reading that example, it seems to be in the past tense. But by the time I finish reading it, it is in the future tense. Although it is technically grammatically correct, it is confusing.

  • Thanks, but could you expand on what your wrote about the second example? Why is it future tense? I relied on the information on this website -- englishpage.com/conditional/wereto.html – user9940 Aug 29 '14 at 23:49
  • Per your citation, the "were to" expression has the same form in both the present tense and the future tense. When I re-read the second example (after realizing that the first part is not really past tense), I imagine people planning a festival. If they are planning the festival in the present, the festival must be in the future. – Jasper Aug 30 '14 at 0:02
  • Rather than repeat this answer (which I like) I should add that at least in my (British English) dialect all the original sentences are ungrammatical because of the use of "so". Even an informal use (with stress on the "so") would sound quite forced. After the first sentence I want to hear something like "that...". This is a different use from "so" in "This band performed at the festival, so many people came." where "so" means "in consequence". But I would agree with all the tense combinations given here. – Francis Davey Sep 7 '14 at 19:31
  • NB: conditional constructions seem to differ quite a bit between British and American English. Hearing an American say "Why would you do that?" to mean "Why did you do that?" is very jarring to my ears. – Francis Davey Sep 7 '14 at 19:32
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All four sentences are correct; the use of were to is more formal, or used when you want to sound more sophisticated.

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