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There are sentences that I'd like to compare.

  1. If you try to take pictures of restricted exhibitions, a member of the staff will ask you to put your camera away.

I'm not sure if you will or want to try it, but you may do this because you are not informed about it or this visit is your first time. Anyway what I'd like to talk about is you will be asked to put you camera away if you try to take pictures. (just giving information)

  1. If you tried to take pictures of restricted exhibitions, a member of the staff would ask you to put your camera away.

I know you are not going to try because you are considerate person or you are not able to do it be cause you don't have a phone or something to take pictures, but if you tried to do it, you would be asked to put your camera away. (giving information more politely)

  • Am I right to put it this way?
  • Do these sentences have the same meaning?

1 Answer 1

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You have it exactly right.

Here's the explanation.

First, the English verb form for indicating a hypothetical situation, known as "the subjunctive", is not very clear and has only very limited uses. So, to add weight to the interpretation that you are speaking hypothetically, you often put a verb in the past tense—even if you are talking about a future situation! That's what happened with tried in your second sentence. When you speak of a consequence of a hypothesis, you normally precede the verb with one of the -ould modal verbs (would, could, should). That's why the second sentence calls for would ask rather than will ask.

Second, a way to soften a statement in order to be more polite or more deferential, is to use a verb form for a hypothesis or consequence—even if that's not really necessary for the literal meaning. The classic examples are "Would you like some tea?" and "Yes, I would like some tea." So, you are exactly right in understanding that your first sentence, with try and will ask, is more blunt and more forceful than the second sentence, with the hypothetical tried and the conditional would ask. And you are exactly right that this choice of verb moods is a subtle way of communicating the speaker's expectation about whether the listener intends to take pictures.

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