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A criminal has been kept in the hands of a militia, and rumor has it that he has just been released.

Assuming the incident is unlikely, which one is correct if I want to comment on the news:

1- "They wouldn't release him, not before they have floated a trial balloon"

2- "They wouldn't release him, not before they had floated a trial balloon"

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"Had". It's a hypothetical conditional, so it uses the past form (historically a past subjunctive, though that is now distinct from the past only in the single form "were").

If you want to use the present in the condition, you need to make the main verb future, expressing a possible future condition:

"They won't release him, not before they have floated a trial balloon"

  • I got my answer and one for free. Boy, am I lucky! Thanks Colin Fine. – learner Jul 6 '16 at 11:56

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