6

If they were to cancel the deal, I would be devastated.

If they canceled the deal, I would be devastated.

My thextbook says, the "if ... were to" construction gives much less probability for something to happen. But an American said to me that it is not, he does not perceive it when he hears it.

  • 4
    I (American) agree with your American friend. I don't perceive one as having a higher likelihood than the other. – Daniel Jun 28 '13 at 15:50
  • what is the name of your text book? – ullas84 Oct 25 '18 at 10:51
5

The current question overlaps considerably with this earlier one asking about using future tense after if.

As has often been pointed out on ELL, English only really has two tenses (past, and "not-past"). And "hypothetical" scenarios such as might follow if are "orthogonal" to the past-present-future timeline anyway, so we're pretty flexible about the choice of tense.

1: If you cancel, I will go instead
2: If you cancelled, I would go instead
3: If you were to cancel, I would go instead
4: If you are cancelling, I will go instead
5: If you will cancel, I will go instead
6: If you would cancel, I would go instead
etc., etc.

All the above are pretty much equivalent, except that using the modal will/would in #5/#6 is more evocative of volition (i.e. - If you are willing to cancel...), so it's more likely to be used when making a request, rather than a simple statement (about a hypothetical action/reaction).


Regarding OP's idea of the probability of the scenario being (or becoming) true, there's no difference implied by the actual choice of words. But if the speaker wishes to convey that he considers the scenario unlikely, he may well use OP's first format, stressing the word were...

If you were to cancel, I would be very surprised indeed!

4

In practice, most people would probably interpret these two sentences the same way, and I've never heard that "canceled" suggests a greater probability than "were to cancel."

However, strictly speaking, the two sentences do not mean the same thing. "If they were to cancel" uses the subjunctive mood, used to characterize hypothetical or counterfactual conditions. It implies that the cancellation decision has not yet been made, although I think it can also cover scenarios in which the decision has been made but you don't know the outcome yet, or in which you don't know whether the decision has been made yet or not.

"If they canceled" is not subjunctive, it is past tense indicative: it says that the decision to cancel or not cancel has already taken place, but the use of "if" says that you don't yet know the results of that decision. If that is indeed the case, I would suggest using "I will" (future tense) rather than "I would" (present subjunctive): you will learn the outcome of the decision in the future, and when you do, you will be devastated if the decision is to cancel.

So here are three possible sentences you could use, depending on the timing of the decision:

"If they canceled the deal, I will be devastated." (the decision has already taken place, but you don't know the outcome yet)

"If they cancel the deal, I will be devastated." (the decision will take place in the future)

"If they were to cancel the deal, I would be devastated." (works with past or future, or if you don't know whether the decision has happened or not)

  • 2
    My feeling is that "If they have canceled the deal, I will be devastated" is a bit more precise. Since the implication is that we are looking at the process of cancellation taking place at any time up to the present there is an implied positioning of the act of canceling with the present. Also, I don't think that the last example can imply that they have already canceled the deal. In this case, would is conditional rather than past tense of will: if they were not to cancel the deal I would not be devastated. "If I were to find that they canceled the deal, I would be devastated" would work. – BobRodes Jun 29 '13 at 4:41
0

In the first sentence the decision is in the air; in the second sentence the decision has definitely been made, but the person in question has yet to find out which way things went.

The second sentence should probably read as follows:

If they canceled the deal, I would am going to be devastated.

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