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What are the most appropriate tenses to use in the parts marked in bold font in the sentence below?

The task you mentioned is important to me and on my to-do list. I would/will be surprised if I did/do/will not complete it by the end of the day today.

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For grammatical reasons, the verb choice for the first clause will influence the verb required in the second clause. Due to the use of the conditional "if" in the secondary (dependent) clause, the sentence can express one of two things: 1) a future possibility (one does not know the future), or 2) an unreal scenario (something that is not true).

In an unreal situation, we might have a sentence like this:

  • I would see a doctor if I were you.

Naturally, I am not you, nor could I be you--so this is an unreal scenario.

Because English has no dedicated subjunctive form, verbs are changed to their past tense fill this role. To express something unreal, we use this past tense. Note that in American English, the unreal past tense of "to be" must always be "were", whereas in British English "was" is also in use.

In the example of the question, two forms are possible.

Future Tense

  • I will be surprised if I do not complete it by the end of the day today.

Unreal Future Tense

  • I would be surprised if I did not complete it by the end of the day today.

Technically, because this is future, the speaker cannot know the outcome with certainty. Placing it in the future tense simply shows that the speaker thinks the task will be accomplished, and will be surprised otherwise; whereas placing it in the unreal future tense shows that the speaker regards the failure to accomplish the task as highly improbable--to the point of being considered an unreal scenario.

In other words, the two options express varying degrees of certainty for the same outcome. Saying "will be surprised if" indicates that one might be surprised, depending on what happens; saying "would be surprised if" indicates that one does not expect this surprise to become a reality.

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  • Thank you for the detailed explanation. I find the case with "would/did" particularly interesting. I knew such a combination constitutes a"second" conditional. But I was not sure if it is ok to use a second cnditional in the above example.
    – H D
    Feb 27 at 22:12
  • Just to make sure I understood correctly what you said, the following argument against the use of the second conditional is invalid, correct? I've included the entire argument within <<>>. <<The completion of the task in the above example will happen in the "future". This implies the use of the second conditional is not correct because the if-clause in the second conditional corresponds to an "unreal" scenario in the "present" time, not the "future">>
    – H D
    Feb 27 at 22:18
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    Perhaps others with a more refined understanding might chime in here, but it is my understanding that the unreal usage can be in any tense, i.e. past, present, or future. Examples of each: "I would have been happy if he hadn't come." (This is past unreal, indicating he came and I was not happy.) "I would be happy if he were to come." (This is present unreal, indicating I would like for him to come, but he has not come.) "I would be happy if he came tomorrow." (Notice the adverb clearly indicating a future tense, combined with a past tense verb for the unreal condition.)
    – Biblasia
    Feb 28 at 14:23
  • Lovely examples. Thank you for them.
    – H D
    Feb 28 at 23:00

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