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I usually hear a native speaker say "if you were to provide context, it would help" when they will answer a question from a forum member. What is the difference between the following?

If you provide context, it will help.

If you provided context, it would help.

My English grammar book says the first sentence is direct and the second is indirect or sounds slightly oblique.

My confusion is what is meant by direct and indirect in this context? Do we speak to the person in a real situation? I'm unclear by the term.

My English grammar book also says this structure can make suggestions sound less definite and so more polite.

It would be nice if you helped me a bit with the house work.

Would it be all right if I came around about seven tomorrow?

Does the speaker mean I'm not certain you help me a bit with the house work or I'm not certain you come around about seven tomorrow?

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    You hear a native speaker say, not see them, right? :) Those are conditionals. The second is just less likely than the first. I have no idea about why your grammar book says that.
    – Lambie
    Nov 14, 2023 at 19:58
  • @Lambie Yes, I hear. What do you mean by "less likely" than the first? Doesn't the person want to give the required context? I'm a little puzzled.
    – Nyambek
    Nov 14, 2023 at 20:04
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    Please go look at how conditionals work: If I call him, he will come. If I called him, he would come (less likely). If I had called him, he would have come.
    – Lambie
    Nov 14, 2023 at 20:21
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    Can't you see that I would have explained it had I been able to explain it?
    – Lambie
    Nov 14, 2023 at 20:55
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    -1 Cite your source, please. There are many grammar books, and I would like to know who the author of this book is.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 15, 2023 at 23:42

4 Answers 4

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Direct, in this context, means "like a command or order".

The first conditional If you provide context, it will help, is when the truth of the condition is considered likely. This means that the speaker is telling them to provide context. It is like an order or command

The "second conditional", If you provided context, it would help, is used when the truth of the condition "(you provide context) is considered unlikely. This has he effect of making the statement less personal. Since it is "unlikely", the speaker isn't telling the other person do something, but giving information.

Orders are the most direct: "Provide context". Sentences that imply an order are also quite "direct". "You must provide context" or "I need you to provide context".

Sentences that suggest inquire or give information are less direct: "Could you provide more context?" "Perhaps more context would make the question easier to answer."

Generally less direct is more polite. More direct is more formal.

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    Hehe, maybe the most direct is "Provide context! It will help!" Nov 14, 2023 at 21:26
  • @James K My English grammar book also says this structure can make suggestions sound less definite and so more polite. It would be nice if you helped me a bit with the house work. Would it be all right if I came around about seven tomorrow? Does the speaker mean I'm not certain you help me a bit with the house work* or I'm not certain you come around about seven tomorrow?
    – Nyambek
    Nov 15, 2023 at 14:03
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    @Nyambek it's extremely common in English that sentences are ambiguous. Probably something like 70% of every sentence ever made in English is highly ambiguous. The fact that a sentence is ambiguous means nothing, and nothing can be done about it.
    – Fattie
    Nov 15, 2023 at 17:14
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    I guess the most aggressive would be "CONTEXT!"
    – Fattie
    Nov 15, 2023 at 17:18
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Both sentences have the function of polite, indirect suggestion.

While both use indirectness to be polite, the second one is more indirect, and therefore more polite and more formal.

A direct request uses the imperative:

Please provide context. It will help.

To make this more indirect, you can phrase it as a condition and result, and allow the listener to infer you're making a request:

If you provide context, it will help.

You can also backshift the both clauses, putting them in the irrealis mood. Since this treats "provide" as an unreal condition, it's even more indirect, which means more polite and more formal:

If you provided context, it would help.

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  • My English grammar book also says this structure can make suggestions sound less definite and so more polite. It would be nice if you helped me a bit with the house work. Would it be all right if I came around about seven tomorrow? Does the speaker mean I'm less difinite you help me / I'm less definite you come around about seven tomorrow?
    – Nyambek
    Nov 15, 2023 at 13:37
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    @Nyambek The comment section on an answer is really for talking about the answer (and the comment section on a question is for talking about the question). If you want to add to your question, the best way is to use the "edit" button (but see also the answer I just gave to this comment on my own answer, before I saw that you added it to others). Nov 15, 2023 at 13:44
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Let's consider a more charged situation; what if we were talking about crime and punishment:

You broke my cup. You must buy me a new one.

This is very direct speech, and might offend you. If there's any chance that I'm wrong, and you didn't break my cup, then I have wrongfully accused you. And I'm making an absolute demand that you buy me a new cup.

If you broke my cup, you should buy me a new one.

This is a bit more indirect. I'm not saying with certainty that you broke it, but I'm clearly saying that it's a real possibility. Either you did or you didn't.

If you were to have broken my cup, you would of course buy me a new one.

This is even more indirect, and the least likely to cause offense. I'm not even saying "if"; it's not as if I'm trying to decide whether you did or didn't. Instead, I'm talking about a hypothetical, talking the same way I would about something imaginary or in the future ("If I were to win the lottery..." "If you were to meet a dragon..."). It might be that I know, and you know, that the cup is very definitely broken, and by bringing up the topic it's clear that I'm thinking about you as a suspect. But by softening my language this way there's less chance for offense and a friendlier tone.

Many languages have similar "hypothetical" tenses, like Spanish Quisiera un vaso de agua.


Edit:

You asked about the difference only between two constructions, but you also mentioned a third:

  • "If you provide, it will" —simple present plus future
  • "If you provided, it would" —past plus hypothetical
  • "If you were to provide, it would" —hypothetical plus hypothetical

You didn't ask about the difference between these second two, but: They can be seen as very similar, but note that the last one is a bit formal and the second is a slightly more casual and conversational version of the same thing. I might actually say "If you were to" in everyday conversation, but I'm a bit of an academic geek, and others might be less likely to use it in speech.


Edit: Is the speaker uncertain? The answer is Maybe, in some examples, but that's not the point.

This construction is all about getting someone else to do something. It softens requests, suggestions, or orders. In fact, your book goes a bit beyond giving a language lesson and is giving a lesson in behavior (or culture, anyway): When you're trying to influence someone else, it's more polite to allow some uncertainty into the situation than to make direct demands. Sometimes this can be a kind of euphemism: Maybe I know for sure you broke my cup; you know you did; I know you know, and you know I know. But I still use hypothetical language to avoid making you feel angry or afraid.

One of the examples from your book truly asks a question: "Would it be all right if I came around about seven tomorrow?" In this case of course the speaker is uncertain; they really want to know whether this time is OK. The more-direct, less-polite version of this might be "I'll come around seven tomorrow." This is less polite not just because of language, but because the speaker is making plans without consulting the other person, telling them how it's going to be instead of letting them have input.

In the example "If you were to provide context, it would help," the speaker doesn't know whether the hearer will accept this suggestion or not. But that's not the point. The speaker isn't asking a question ("Will you provide context?") or trying to resolve their own uncertainty. They're softening the direct command "Provide context!" by saying that maybe the hearer will do it, maybe they won't, but if they do, it will be beneficial.

Sometimes there is so little uncertainty that we use language that in some ways doesn't make sense when you look at it too closely. If a toddler wants a glass of water, they demand it directly: "Give me a glass of water!" Or they might state their definite desire: "I want a glass of water!" We teach them to soften these requests: "I would like a glass of water." We use "would," a word that we would usually use in a conditional ("would ... if"), but we don't even bother saying the rest of the conditional. Maybe it's something like "I would like a glass of water if you were to give me one." Maybe you will, maybe you won't; I'm not demanding or even saying that you definitely will, but if it were to happen... I would like it.

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  • My English grammar book also says this structure can make suggestions sound less definite and so more polite. It would be nice if you helped me a bit with the house work. Would it be all right if I came around about seven tomorrow? Does the speaker mean I'm less difinite you help me / I'm less definite you come around about seven tomorrow?
    – Nyambek
    Nov 15, 2023 at 13:31
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    @Nyambek Hm, I'm not sure I understand "Does the speaker mean I'm less definite ___"; you might need to look up "definite" in a dictionary. But maybe what you're asking is: This construction doesn't so much mean that the speaker is unsure or undecided; instead, it talks about a situation as if that situation isn't absolute settled reality. Some more-definite versions of these two examples might be "You should help me a bit with the house work" and "I will come around seven tomorrow." Nov 15, 2023 at 13:43
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    I have adited and added my question. Could you explain to me and add your response in more detail so that it's clear.
    – Nyambek
    Nov 15, 2023 at 13:52
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    @Nyambek Thanks, but "I'm less definite you ___" aren't words that make sense together in English. When your book uses the word "definite" about these constructions, they're not really talking about a feeling the speaker has, but about the way they're talking about these ideas. Nov 15, 2023 at 13:56
  • Yes, my confusion here: "Less definite" means unsure. So my understanding is "The speaker is not certain that the person will help me a bit with the house work" and the person will come around seven tomorrow. Is my interpretation right? This is what I understand the term "less definite" in this conext.
    – Nyambek
    Nov 15, 2023 at 13:58
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The if you provide version constitutes something of an offer, a promise: all you need do to ensure receiving an answer is provide context.

The if you provided version could easily be interpreted, especially by someone only just learning the language, as describing a situation entirely in the past: if you had done that, things would have turned out differently. Or it can suggest that the speaker doubts that the person addressed would provide. In any case, this version is less clearly inviting the person who posted the question to go back and edit to incorporate the context that has been judged to be missing and necessary.

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    My English grammar book also says this structure can make suggestions sound less definite and so more polite. It would be nice if you helped me a bit with the house work. Would it be all right if I came around about seven tomorrow? Does the speaker mean I'm not certain you help me a bit with the house work or I'm not certain you come around about seven tomorrow?
    – Nyambek
    Nov 15, 2023 at 14:30
  • It can mean that. Depends on context. And tone of voice. Thus pronouncing it would be nice with nice both higher pitch and louder often implies …but I doubt it’s going to happen, or even …but I doubt you care about being nice. Nov 15, 2023 at 16:39

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