1. What a row would there have been if they had known you were here!
  2. How great would have been her disappointment if she had known what they had actually thought! (Both are example sentences from The Cambridge grammar of the English language, without context)

In (1), how do you interpret "were"? Does the sentence imply you are here now or is it talking about a past situation?
In (2), does "had" indicate "thought" is anterior to her knowing or to the time of utterance.

I think the two questions are related, so I ask them in the same thread.

  • Both are confusing because of "irrealis mood", more commonly known as unreal grammar". Are you familiar with it?
    – gotube
    May 19 at 4:01
  • @gotube Yes, I'm familiar with irrealis. That is part of the reason why I asked, actually.
    – ForOU
    May 19 at 4:50
  • (1) seems to refer to a past situation - otherwise it would be "What a row would there be if they knew you were here!" May 19 at 8:04
  • @KateBunting Thanks. And what do you think is the most salient interpretation for the second sentence?
    – ForOU
    May 19 at 8:23
  • (2) is a rather strange sentence to me, which is why I didn't post a formal answer. I think it means that the thinking was prior to her (not) knowing about it. May 19 at 11:22

1 Answer 1


Both sentences are ambiguous -- both interpretations are possible.

In the first, if the person is still there, then there's a choice between "are/were" since backshifting is optional in situations where the verb is still true now. And if the person is not still there, then "were" is required. So either situation could be true with "were".

The same logic applies to the second situation.

  • A follow up question. "would there have been" can only refer to a specific time in the past. It can't refer to a period of time leading up to the present in this context. Do I get it right?
    – ForOU
    May 29 at 13:05
  • I believe you're right. I can't think of a way "would have been" can ever refer to something in the present, even though it's unreal.
    – gotube
    May 29 at 17:16

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