In the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum (et al.), The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL), Anita Mittwoch and Rodney Huddleston and Peter Collins talk about "the doubly remote conditional construction" on page 754:

The doubly remote conditional construction

[48 ]

  • i. If you had told me you were busy I would have come tomorrow. <-- [past-future]

  • ii. If you had come tomorrow you would have seen the carnival. <-- [future-future]

  • iii. If your father had been alive today he would have been distraught to see his business disintegrating like this. <-- [present-present]

(I've marked some verbal clusters in bold to indicate the doubly remote construction. I've also added the brackets to indicate the respective temporal situation of the protasis and apodosis as describe in CGEL. Note that in [i ] the verb cluster "had told" is not a doubly remote construction but a past remote construction where the past tense of "had" expresses modal remoteness and the perfect construction temporal meaning.)

The authors go on to say:

Where the time is future the doubly remote construction indicates not only that P and Q are false, but also that the possibility of the future situation being actualised has already been foreclosed by a past event. In [i-ii ], for example, it might be that I or you have come today, with the assumption that that precludes our coming again tomorrow.


In [i ] and [ii ], let's assume that I and you have come today, respectively, and therefore that I and you cannot come again tomorrow, which is exactly the same situation as describe as an example in CGEL. In this situation, is it possible not to use the doubly remote constructions as follows?

  • [i' ] If you had told me you were busy I would come tomorrow.

  • [ii' ] If you came tomorrow you would see the carnival.

  • What is your evaluation of your two new versions (i' and ii')? Do they sound reasonable to your ear, when both parties are there standing in front of each other, when it is already understood that I/you won't be able to come tomorrow?
    – F.E.
    Commented Feb 24, 2015 at 10:17
  • +1. I think this is a good grammar question. It might be one that could be difficult for EFL speakers to understand, or to develop an ear for. (It is sorta reminding me of the question of how to explain the differences in the usages of the nouns "try" and "attempt" to EFL students.)
    – F.E.
    Commented Feb 24, 2015 at 19:56
  • Honestly, neither [i'] nor [ii'] sounds reasonable to my ears. In [i'] "I would come tomorrow" sounds like a hypothetical but not necessarily a counterfactual. So do both "came" and "would see" of [ii']. What's bugging me is, though, the question of why a hypothetical doesn't include a counterfactual in these particular cases, given that a hypothetical does include a counterfactual in other cases as in "If I were you, I would come tomorrow." (Which is clearly a hypothetical AND a counterfactual)
    – JK2
    Commented Feb 25, 2015 at 1:54
  • If I'm understanding your last comment: maybe a factor can be that "If I were you" is enough by itself to drawn in that counterfactual weight, so that there is no need for an extra remoteness marker to upgrade "remoteness" to "counterfactual"--because it is obvious that I cannot be you. But in your two OP examples, if they only had a single marker of remoteness, that wouldn't be enough for them to then support the counterfactual interpretation as their expected interpretation because there are many normal contexts where they could be used for only the modal remoteness interpretation.
    – F.E.
    Commented Feb 25, 2015 at 8:45
  • Is it ever possible to say, "If I were you I would have come tomorrow"?
    – JK2
    Commented Feb 25, 2015 at 8:55

5 Answers 5


I'd like to ask JK2 -- can you talk about what motivates you to ask your original question? I'm interested to know how you are hoping the answer will be helpful for you -- as a teacher? As a scholar? As a student? As an ELL doing your best to communicate with native English speakers? If I understand your motivation, it will be easier for me to say something that will be useful for you.

There's been some discussion about i, ii and iii being, shall we say, far fetched. Let's see if I can create some context and some more conceivable sentences.

i''. Let's say I've just arrived in northern Europe on Easter Monday, but I didn't realize Easter Monday and Tuesday are big deal there, with EVERYTHING closed and taxi drivers very scarce at the airport. I say to my host, "If you had told me everything would be closed today and tomorrow, I would have come on Wednesday."

How's that? Wednesday is in the future, but the sentence doesn't sound so weird any more.

ii''. My host responds, "But if you had come on Wednesday, you wouldn't have seen my cousin Margritt, who always comes to visit on Easter Tuesday."

Tuesday and Wednesday are in the future.

iii''. My host continues, "Careful what you say tomorrow when Margritt comes! If she had been here today, and heard you say that, she would have been offended."

Personally, this whole thing makes me think of someone who spends a lot of time sorting the potatoes by size into six piles -- tiny, small, medium, medium large, large, and massive, in preparation for peeling ALL of them. (I guess this came to mind because in the region where my German in-laws live, the potatoes are out of this world, and the custom is to have potatoes with dinner every day.)

I think that native speakers and ELLs can all happily express themselves with the basic pattern, If ... had [past participle], ... would have [past participle] ... without worrying about whether it's [past - future] etc. etc.

Now it's time to address the question you wrote. I will rephrase it slightly, for clarity (for my own benefit!).

is it possible to avoid using the doubly remote constructions as follows?

[i'] If you had told me you were busy I would come tomorrow.

[ii'] If you came tomorrow you would see the carnival.

If I assume you are an ELL working on improving your understanding and use of the basic grammar pattern I showed, and are asking for feedback about the two alternatives you wrote -- sorry if this is a wrong guess -- then here is my answer:

i': You have a small grammatical error here. If you want the second part to be I would come tomorrow, then the first part should be If you told me.

Here's an example of this, taken from https://www.ego4u.com/en/cram-up/grammar/conditional-sentences: If I found her address, I would send her an invitation.

Here's one that to me feels more authentic: If I wanted your help, I would ask for it!

ii': This one is grammatically correct, but it doesn't express the full guilt-trip flavor of ii. I don't think it's really equivalent.

  • I'm no scholar, given that I have not received any formal training in linguistics. That said, I'm not one of those ordinary ELL teachers, native or not, who simply follow the "traditional grammar". So unless you're using some really technical linguistic symbols and stuff, please feel free to give an answer revealing the whole truth about how you feel about those examples rather than give an overly simplified rule of a sort.
    – JK2
    Commented Apr 1, 2015 at 3:45
  • Regarding your answer to [i'], which bases its context on CGEL's [i], please remember that the if-clause in both the versions is about what happened in the past, i.e., "you didn't tell me you were busy". And isn't it more correct to say "If you had told me you were busy" than "If you told me you were busy", regardless of whether the main clause discusses a future event? In other words, the if-clause of [i'] is sort of fixed as far as my question is concerned.
    – JK2
    Commented Apr 1, 2015 at 3:53
  • Very helpful comment! You teach English as a second language, without formal training in linguistics, but with plenty of deep thinking about things. Me too, isn't that funny? Well, I used to teach that. Now I just drive my husband nuts trying to help him get rid of his Germanisms. (Also I do scientific editing -- but I never trained formally for that either!) I'll talk about [i'] in the next comment, I don't have enough space here. Commented Apr 2, 2015 at 1:39
  • Let's leave the if-clause fixed, as you suggested. If we do that, then the second part has to be "I would have come tomorrow." Commented Apr 2, 2015 at 1:41
  • I wonder if there's a linguistics section -- if not, maybe you could get the sort of answer you're looking for over in the English language and usage area. By the way, I'm sorry I guessed wrong -- I think it was because I've seen so many questions posed by ELLs in this area. Commented Apr 2, 2015 at 1:45

First of all, nobody says "I and you"; they say "you and I" to be polite.

Secondly, in your question you use "respectively" and only give one thing referred to by it. One says: "The sky and ground are blue and brown, respectively." Two pairs of things, matched.

[i'] should be "If you had told me you were busy I would have come tomorrow." (Instead of today.)

[ii'] could be "If you came tomorrow you would be able to see the carnival." Here we are talking about the future. The possibility is still open.

If he loved his girlfriend he would fly out to her tomorrow. Sure, why not. If he loved his girlfriend he would stop asking her hypothetical questions about carnivals and take her to a movie.

If I found her address, I would send her an invitation. No. You're mixing up future and past. If I [had] found her address, I would have sent an invitation. If I find it in the future, I will send her an invitation.

Have fun!


If you had told me you were busy I would come tomorrow.

How possible is it for you to now tell me, back in the past, that you were busy?

If it's not possible for you to do that bit of time-travelling, in order to set up the conditions where you could come tomorrow, then you won't be able to come tomorrow. i.e. the doubly conditional phrasing is the correct one.

[ii' ] If you came tomorrow you would see the carnival.

This phrasing is correct, as far as it goes, but it's saying something different to the original phrasing.

The original phrasing

ii. If you had come tomorrow you would have seen the carnival. <-- [future-future]

is actually saying that because you came today, you won't be able to see the carnival. (By implication, it's saying the carnival won't get here until tomorrow, or somesuch. The other inference is that you had an either/or choice between visiting today and visiting tomorrow, rather than a both/and choice. )


First of all, (i) and (ii) are totally impossible. "...would have come tomorrow" does not make sense in any universe I can conceive of. You cannot say you would have come tomorrow, because you do not yet know that you did not come tomorrow. You won't know till tomorrow that you didn't/don't/won't come tomorrow. (even though Huddleston claims the "possibility of the future situation being actualised is already foreclosed by a past event")

Having said that, yes, (i') and (ii') are better, in that they are slightly less incomprehensible.

To make sense, though, I would say:

  • (i) If you had told me you would be busy today, I would have planned to come tomorrow instead.

  • (ii) If you could have come tomorrow, you would have been able to see the carnival.

  • (iii) If your father were alive today he would be distraught....

In short, I reject Huddleston's tacit hypothesis that there is any good use for the doubly-remote conditional which could not be handled more gracefully and intelligibly via other constructions.

(I don't deny that the doubly-remote conditional exists; only that there is a practical use for it). That is to say, if native speakers can get by without it for a lifetime, I doubt ELLs would suffer much by not mastering it.

  • 1
    Are you suggesting that the doubly remote conditional construction as described in the OP is rarely used in everyday usage of English? So much so that even a native speaker might find these constructions unnatural or stilted or even "impossible"?
    – JK2
    Commented Feb 25, 2015 at 3:05
  • 1
    No, the construction is not impossible, but some of the examples given strain credulity, to put it mildly. But if you hadn't asked me yesterday, I wouldn't have replied this way tomorrow. Commented Feb 25, 2015 at 10:30
  • 1
    Regarding your last sentence, I understand why you used 'hadn't asked' in the protasis and 'wouldn't have replied' in the apodosis, purely tense-wise. That said, I'm having a hard time understanding the logical connection between the protasis and the apodosis. I mean, in the protasis, you go back to 'yesterday' and imagine a hypothetical world where I didn't ask you 'yesterday'. And in that imaginary world you are precluded from NOT replying this way 'tomorrow'? What does that mean?
    – JK2
    Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 4:00
  • 1
    It's sarcasm, my friend. Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 7:37
  • @BrianHitchcock, re: your comment, I don't see the sarcasm; I see the literal meaning ("If you hadn't asked me yesterday [and instead had asked tomorrow], I wouldn't have replied this way tomorrow"). Can you explain? Commented Feb 2, 2020 at 6:58

Cases ii and iii are over-engineered, and of questionable correctness. Maybe older usage, but certainly not canonical in modern English.

The third conditional form (past perfect => would have + past participle) has a pretty well defined use, which is past-past.

For anything improbable that is present there's the second form (past simple => would + base form). So, the correct way to phrase iii should be:

iii. If your father was alive today he would be distraught to see his business disintegrating like this. <-- [present-present]

Case ii [future-future] is slightly more tricky. It still falls under the second conditional, but somehow we need to express the fact that the condition is not in the present but in the future. For that, we use the correct auxiliary verb, and put that in past simple form. Like this:

ii. If you were to come tomorrow you would see the carnival. <-- [future-future]

It is utterly wrong to use past perfect, of all things (i.e. "would have seen the carnival"), to express a future event.

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