Virgil "the Turk" Sollozzo was a powerfully built, medium sized man of dark complexion who could have been taken for a true Turk. He had a scimitar of a nose and cruel black eyes.

Sonny Corleone met him at the door and brought him into the office where Hagen and the Don waited. Hagen thought he had never seen a more dangerous-looking man except for Luca Brasi.

There were polite handshakings all around. If the Don ever asks me if this man has balls, I would have to answer yes, Hagen thought.

I have a question about the sentence that I emphasize. As far as I've understood it expresses what Hagen would have to answer if the Don asks him. But I don't understand why the present simple is used instead of the the past simple.

M. Swan says

special tenses can also be used to give an idea that something is unlikely, imaginary or untrue.

If I married you we would both be unhappy

  • Because this is fiction prose. One of the somewhat common conventions used by many fiction writers is that, in narrative past-tense mode (which you've accurately figured out), a character's thoughts is expressed as though it is dialogue (though without the quotation marks). Thus, the expressed thought is similar to what would be written as a character's dialogue: e.g. "If the Don ever asks me if this man has balls, I would have to answer yes," Hagen said. (Aside: Some fiction writers might write out that thought the way that you mentioned, using past-tense.)
    – F.E.
    Sep 20, 2014 at 6:21
  • @F.E. I still don't understand how fiction of that prose bounds to such tense using. Even if Hagen said what he thought it would be an imaginary situation and we must use the past instead of the present to distance it from 'reality'. Do you mean it is stillistic narrative? If yes, what does it emphasize? Sep 21, 2014 at 4:32
  • Hagan is thinking, or would say, exactly those words -- according to the writer. So imagine Hagan saying that sentence to a friend. Now exactly what Hagan means by that, such as does he really think the Don would ask him that question, well, it seems to me (at first blush) that it is an open conditional, and that the "would" used in the main clause ("I would have to answer yes") is probably not a modal remote use of the modal auxiliary verb WILL -- I'm thinking this because the "if" part uses only present-tense verbs ("asks" and "has").
    – F.E.
    Sep 21, 2014 at 6:10
  • I'm a native speaker, but I don't have the nuanced grammar knowledge to fully answer. It is appropriate to say "If I kissed you we would both be unhappy" but it is also correct to say "If I [ever] kiss Peggy Sue [at any time in the future], please slap me."
    – apsillers
    Sep 22, 2014 at 18:28

1 Answer 1


It is because you are seeing his thoughts at that time. What would you say if you were talking about going to the store today, for example? Maybe it would go like this:

"If I go to the store, I have to buy some fish."

In the moment, you use the present simple to show a possible future action. And this is the case that you see in your example.

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