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Modal Remoteness & Tense

To preface, I have been studying conditionals for the last few days because the grammar book that I used barely mentioned it. Now as the title suggests, I have a question about modal remoteness and tense. My question deals with stories, which are typically in the past tense, and when modality occurs which I should use: second (present time remote) or third (past time remote) conditional. I am unsure of which but am leaning towards third conditional. Which would be used?

  • November 28, 2013
  • Posted by Jasper
  • Filed in Grammar

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1) The idea that there are "first","second", and "third" conditionals is just a way of putting it all across to ESOL intermediate students. The "six-pack" (as each conditional has two parts to the sentence - the if clause and the main clause) covers maybe two-thirds of conditional sentences and helps ESOL learners get off the ground. Later they learn about "mixed" conditionals and the whole construct is somewhat undermined.

2) The truth (which is taught much later) is that one just chooses the most befitting tense for the situation - there are a limited number of choices. So in the "if" clause (first conditional) any present tense will do;
and in the main clause and modal will do eg:
a) "If he's missed the bus, you could come too".

3) If one is looking at "third" conditionals, it is noteworthy that "would" , "could", "should", "might", and "must" indicate the idea is unreal; and "have+third form" (eg have sent) is the perfect infinitive indicating past time.

4) In older English one could say "he was come" instead of "he has come" and thus:
b) "If he were come, I would have known." instead of
c) "If he had come, I would have known."
This shows that "had" in (c) is an unmarked subjunctive. The use of what looks like a "past" tense in second and third conditionals masks what is really an unmarked subjunctive form, which today only shows up in "If I were you". The subjunctive here is used because the situation is unreal.

jayles December 3, 2013, 9:02am

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@Jasper Just to make the term "six-pack" clearer: (you need to draw this in boxes)

1) REAL/PRES/FUT "If/Should I have time, I will/shall/may/can call her."
2) UNREAL/PRES/FUT "If I had time, I would/could/might call her."
3) UNREAL/PAST "If I had had time, I would/could/might have called her."

jayles December 3, 2013, 9:14am

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Could you perhaps give examples of what you mean by modality and modal remoteness? As far as conditionals go, I think there are several ways to talk about the past. Probably the most common is Third conditional, also known as past hypothetical or past counterfactual:

'If I hadn't become an English teacher, I wouldn't have come to Poland.'

Third conditional relates to hypothetical conditions and results in the past that are untrue - (but I did become an English teacher, and I did come to Poland).

First and Second both refer to the present or the future, so we can discount them for your purposes:

If it stops raining, I'll go out for a walk. (1st) - realistic / probable
If I wasn't (weren't) teaching in Poland, I'd like to be in Spain. (2nd) - unlikely / hypothetical

But there are a few other ways to use conditionals in the past that don't fit into the 1,2,3 pattern, for example - 'If I was in London, I stayed at the Ritz' - 'if' here really means 'whenever', and I call it Zero conditional in the past (Zero conditional is about general conditions - 'I usually walk to work, but if it's raining I take the bus'). And there are also others that use 'normal tenses' but where the result is not dependent on the condition being fulfilled:

'If that's what he thought, why didn't he say so?'
'If you were hungry, you should have said.'

But the fact you talk about modal 'remoteness' makes makes think you're talking about hypothetical situations. In EFL we call this use of past tenses the 'Unreal past', that's to say:

Past simple (I did) and continuous (I was doing) for present / future conditions (2nd)
Past perfect simple (I had done) and continuous (I had been doing) for past conditions (3rd)

There are also Mixed conditionals where, for example, a past hypothetical condition has a present result - 'If I'd worked harder at university, I might have a better job now', and less common, where a present (or more likely general) condition has a past result - 'If I wasn't (weren't) so lazy, I'd have worked harder at university'.

The standard forms in the result clause are - will (1), would (2) and would have (3), but we can use certain other modal verbs as well, as long as they're in the right form, for example - can (1), could (2), could have (3), may (1), might (2), might have (3) :

If I'd passed my exams, I could have become a lawyer.
If I'd become a lawyer, I might have made my name as a famous barrister.

Other uses of 'Unreal past' include:
'I wish / If only' - I wish I was (were) in Egypt (present), If only I hadn't said that' (past)
'I'd rather' - I'd rather you didn't do that (present), I wish you hadn't done that. (past)
Supposing, imagine etc - Supposing you were rich (present), Imagine you hadn't become a teacher. (past)

Warsaw Will December 3, 2013, 9:19am

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And as a footnote: most European languages have similar systems for handling conditionals and unreal ideas - the English system is borrowed from French and German. However, Slav languages tend to make little distinction between what in English are second and third conditionals; today's German verb tends not to distinguish "when" and "if" (and "in case"); Japanese has something like four ways of expressing conditionals, which don't necessarily correspond to the English system; and of course in Chinese the verb doesn't change at all. One should not take it that other languages are like English.

jayles December 3, 2013, 9:41am

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Yes, I am aware of mixed conditionals, but have not focused on them yet, and have made a chart using the terms of present open, past open, present remote, and past remote. I learned these terms from an insightful Grammar Girl article written by Neal Whitman, whose blog received a post from Warsaw Will himself. I do know the syntactic forms themselves. I would like to know more about your fourth point (I was come)?

@Warsaw Will,

For your example (ignore pronunciation), I will give two excerpts (from the same source) that I have written:

"The quiet, almost somnolent, wood was known as Fei, which, ironically, meant ebullience and energy despite its natural languor, Forest. If it were ever mentioned, which happened very little, Fei Forest would sometimes be referred to as the Crescent Forest because of how it curves around Braunvour Gulf."


"...although Marai was not lost but, if he were, he would descend rather slowly into the superstition of the lesovik."

I am unsure whether it should be past unreal (remote) or present real (open). I might be having an issue with the usage of past and present in their names (the tense aspect of it).

I thank both of you and your help.

Jasper December 3, 2013, 1:48pm

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' When the even was come,' says St. Matthew, viii. 16 (in the KJV)
In German the auxiliary verb that goes with the past participle for intransitive verbs of motion is "is/are/was/were" instead of "has/have/had". This happens in older English sometimes too. There are also twelve French verbs that do the same thing.
I only brought that in to show that what seems to be the past form is in fact an old subjunctive form - there is no difference in modern English outside the verb "be".

jayles December 3, 2013, 2:21pm

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"Remoteness" was put forward by I think Michael Lewis in the lexical approach. It was an attempt to bring together the two meanings of the "past simple" (eg went/sang/rode) - past time or unreal.
IMHO it doesn't cut it for serious study. Much better to understand that the subjunctive mood is usually unmarked in English, although it comes up in things like:
"The doctor recommends that she take the pills twice daily" (not takes)
"I wish she would go" (not will)
If you have a smattering of French you may recall: Je veux qu'elle aille
The other thing is some languages have "modal" endings to the verb:
in old Greek there used to be an optative mood; in Hungarian the verb can change endings to express "can" - no separate verb needed. It's just that in English the subjunctive is hard to distinguish.

jayles December 3, 2013, 2:41pm

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(1) "If it were ever mentioned, which happened very little, Fei Forest would sometimes be referred to as the Crescent Forest because of how it curves around Braunvour Gulf."

OK, this falls into the class of true rather than a hypothetical conditional (even if it happened rarely) and basically uses past forms in both clauses. I would use 'was' rather than 'were' here, because when it was referred to as Crescent Forest, it obviously was being mentioned; nothing unreal or hypothetical there. As for the the 'would be', this is simply a way of expressing past habit and doesn't really express modality (for me) - it could equally well (grammatically, though not necessarily stylistically) be 'used to be referred to' or simply 'was sometimes referred to'.

(2) "...although Marai was not lost but, if he were, he would descend rather slowly into the superstition of the lesovik."

I don't quite follow this, partly because I'm a bit confused by the 'although' and 'but' in the same clause, but mainly because 'although Marai was not lost' sounds to me as though you're talking about a specific occasion, but then the conditional seems to be about a general condition in the past (my Zero in the past), which says that whenever he was lost he would descend into ... etc.

If that's the case, I think that 'were' is again inappropriate, because the fact that 'he would descend rather slowly' sounds as though it really happened, on the occasions when the condition was fulfilled, so this is a real condition, not a hypothetical one.

If, on the other hand, this is all about what he didn't do on a specific occasion, we need Third conditional - 'Marai was not lost. But if he had been, he would have descended ... ' etc.

I am a great fan of Neil Whitman and am a regular follower of his blog, Literal-Minded. But I have serious misgivings about that GrammarGirl piece (and others where he tries to teach grammar to non-specialists) , where he dismissed the 1,2,3 system without any great understanding about its details, its flexibility for different levels, and it what it's for - he admitted on his blog that he had very little experience of it and went to one website (which wasn't one of the big ESL or EFL ones) which gave a very strict interpretation of it, whereas the system jayles outlined is more fluid, for example being able to use any present tense in first conditional rather than just present simple, which is what students learn at lower levels, to keep things uncomplicated.

His whole criticism of it seemed to be based on the fact that you couldn't use it to categorise the sentence "If he died fighting, why didn’t they tell us about it?" which is about as obscure a conditional as you could imagine (and nowhere to be seen on the web, other than in this article or others referring to it). As jayles has said, the 1,2,3 system is to help people form true conditionals, not analyse every sentence that contains an 'if clause. As I commented on that piece, I don't consider this to be a true conditional, because the result is no dependent on the condition - it really means 'If it's the case that he died fighting, why didn't they tell us?'

Warsaw Will December 4, 2013, 10:57am

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@Warsaw Will

Yes, I agree with your point on number one. I have not checked the story in some time because I have been busy with school work.

Number two, however, is basically saying that currently Marai is not lost and not in this superstitious state, but if he were lost, he would be in that superstitious state. When I reread it myself, while finding selections of what I was talking about, it struck me as odd, and I might change it when I get a chance. Perhaps to be more lucid, what I am basically asking is: does the third conditional (past unreal/remote/real/open) go with the past tense and same with the second conditional with the present?

Jasper December 4, 2013, 3:33pm

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@Jasper - I wouldn't think so much about which goes with which tense; it's the meaning that is important. Second and third conditionals are both about hypothetical or unreal conditions:

Second is about a condition and result in the present or future - If I won the lottery, I'd jump for joy - which is still, in theory at least, could still happen

Third is about a condition and result in the past which you can't now do anything about - If I'd won the lottery last year, I'd have gone to the London Olympics. - But I didn't, and there's nothing I can do about it now.

So Third is never real or open. To use a real or open (only possible when talking about the general past) just use normal past tenses, as I suggested in my previous post.

So, I'm still at bit of a loss - "...although Marai was not lost but, if he were, he would descend rather slowly into the superstition of the lesovik." - not knowing the context makes it a bit more difficult. The bit before might help, as would knowing what the superstition of the lesovik is.

The important thing is the getting lost bit. Is this something he might do in general (where we could use 'when or whenever', or are we talking about the possibility only at that moment? If it's the latter, as I suspect, I think you need Third Conditional - if he had been (lost), he would have descended rather slowly into the superstition of lesovik. (But he wasn't, so he didn't).

If it's something that could happen more than once, then I think you need 'was' not 'were'. What you've got at the moment has the same form as a Second conditional but it isn't a Second conditional, as that only refers to the present or future (on a particular occasion).

And if this is the case, the meaning of 'would' here is different from the meaning of 'would' in a Second conditional - it's the same as in the first example - would descend, used to descend, descended.

Real present (1st) - If he's lost, he'll surely phone for help
Unreal present (2nd) - If he were / was lost, he would surely call for help
Real present general (Zero) - If (or when) he's lost, he always phones for help.

Real past open (on a specific occasion) - not possible - the past is the past
Unreal past (3rd) - If he had been lost, he would have called for help
Real past general (Zero in the past) - If (or when) he was lost, he called /used to call / would call for help

Warsaw Will December 6, 2013, 9:19am

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Sorry for the delay in responding. Although I have since removed the spot in an edit, I will, by the aid of wikipedia, inform you as to what a lesovik:

"The Leshy or Lesovik is a male woodland spirit in Slavic mythology who protects wild animals and forests."

For the more of the sentence, which I did edit out but somehow still have it in another document, is (I forewarn you that I like to strive to write Proustian sentences and I will add notes in brackets for clarification):

"... he heaved one leg after the other over the log whose coves in the bark looked like face-paint adorned for a ritual, a festivity of submission to illusion, the woods [this is metaphorical and in relation to the festivity] where a person enjoyed getting lost although Marai was not lost but, if he were, would descend rather slowly into the superstition of the lesovik"

I suppose I could have coordinated the sentence at 'but'. When I first wrote it, my intention was that Marai was not currently in a state of superstition, but in the future, he may be. I realized the issue with the type of conditional that I was using.

I hope that the holidays and New Years went well for both of you, Jayles and Warsaw Will.

Jasper January 16, 2014, 5:19pm

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OK, the conditional's probably OK as it refers to a possible future event, but I still think you have a problem with 'although' and 'but' in the same clause.

Trivial little cultural language difference - we Brits mainly still refer to Christmas, whatever our religion is (or isn't). And for us it's New Year without an s, except in the genitive with a noun: New Year's Eve, New Year's Day - so, Happy New Year to you.

Warsaw Will January 17, 2014, 1:36am

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As this is my post, I have another question related to the subjunctive: should the subjunctive be used here?

"He was convinced that [if he was/were to move his arm, it would break]."

I don't think it should because the conditional is possible, but the result isn't. I just don't if the subjunctive can work that way. I think "was" should work.

Anywho, new site layout, I'm a little disappointed that I can't see what's new on the side of the page.

Jasper June 2, 2014, 9:53pm

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@Jasper - We're talking of a sort of indirect speech here, so need to think what he originally said to himself - If it was "If I move my arm it will break" (real conditional), then - He was convinced that if he moved his arm, it would break.

But if he was thinking "If I were to move my arm, it would break" (unreal conditional), then your sentence would be the way to go.

By using the "were to"construction instead of a simple past, you've already decided that this is a hypothetical condition and to use an unreal past, and therefore subjunctive "were" would indeed be appropriate. Whether you use "was" or "were", on the other hand, depends on how formal you want to be, and how attached you are to the subjunctive. Many people, especially Americans I think, would consider "was" wrong here, and as it's obviously from a piece of written work, "were" would be safer.

Whether to choose a real or unreal conditional here is another matter. Personally, I feel a real one would be stronger.

Warsaw Will June 2, 2014, 10:36pm

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At the time, I was looking for "If-clauses" through some of my documents to see whether I had been hypercorrect, and I think this may be one.

Although my Word (not always the best basis to go by) tells me that "was" should be "were", I however cannot see how this would be an unreal conditional. First, the action hasn't taken place yet; second, it doesn't seem impossible/counterfactual in the condition clause; third, only the result seems impossible; and finally, I had written the character to move his arm in the very next sentence with nothing happening.

I think that it should be the past form of the real conditional, as thou've said.

Jasper June 3, 2014, 12:11pm

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Dear Jasper

If you use "thou" and "thee", please note the correct endings for common verbs:*&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t2%3B%2Cthou%20*%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Bthou%20hast%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bthou%20art%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bthou%20shalt%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bthou%20wilt%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bthou%20not%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bthou%20canst%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bthou%20didst%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bthou%20dost%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bthou%20mayest%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bthou%20be%3B%2Cc0

jayles June 3, 2014, 3:47pm

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I never said that I was bringing back the verb inflections of thou, or would thou prefer I bring back -th inflection for third person singular too? No, I'm merely making a simple substitution for singular second person.

My intent was to use the singular pronoun not verb forms. Think of it as modern thou in place of you.

Jasper June 3, 2014, 5:02pm

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The 's' ending on the third person overtook '-th' in the late middle ages; either is possible , but '-th' is definitely archaic, and not in modern use.

My take on it would be that using "thou" without the befitting verb endings would mean the sentence was ungrammatical. The -'st' endings are still in modern use in northern England, so they are in no way optional.

jayles the unwoven June 3, 2014, 7:41pm

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Yes, they still exist in dialects, but I see no reason why my speech needs to be modeled after said dialect. Additionally, thou without verbs marking the case have appeared, although low:

Additionally, why would I keep case endings of past tense and modal verbs? Third person doesn't anymore, so thou shouldn't either.

Finally, I do have an option of how I conjugate my verbs.

Jasper June 3, 2014, 8:29pm

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Of course you may do as you wish; it is indeed difficult to talk of "standard" English when discussing "thou" and "thee", and modern usage in dialects is pretty non-conformist. I tend to see KJV as being the main influence here, but of course that is fairly archaic now. There are clearly some writers out there who do not follow either KJV or modern dialect usage. Plus ca change.

jayles the unwoven June 4, 2014, 2:19am

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@Jasper - "Although my Word (not always the best basis to go by) tells me that "was" should be "were", I however cannot see how this would be an unreal conditional. First, the action hasn't taken place yet; second, it doesn't seem impossible/counterfactual in the condition clause; third, only the result seems impossible; and finally, I had written the character to move his arm in the very next sentence with nothing happening."

Your sentence was "He was convinced that [if he was/were to move his arm, it would break]."

By using the "was/were to" construction, you yourself have decided to use a counterfactual: that's what the "was/were to" construction is. And as I said before, purists (and your spell checker) , will demand subjunctive "were" there, though EFL teaching is more tolerant. But whether you use "were" or "was" in this construction, it is still a counterfactual. "If he was to move his arm" means exactly the same as "If he was to move his arm", the only difference is one of formality. Just as "I wish I was in Egypt" is no less of a counterfactual than "I wish I were in Egypt" - it's just the use of "was" instead of "were" is increasing (which is presumably why the Egypt's ad agency went for "was").

"Was/were to" is often used to make a suggestion more tentative:

"If I take 100 items, will you give me 5% discount" - real conditional
"If I took 100 items, would you give me 5% discount" - an unreal (counterfactual) conditional to make the suggestion more tentative
"If I were to take 100 items, would you give me 5% discount" - an unreal conditional, even more tentative.

I think we can prove that this is a possible subjunctive as we can invert it (but only the "were" version):

"Were I to take 100 items, would you give me 5% discount" (NB we can't do this with "was")

This is from Longman's Dictionary:

"used in conditional sentences about an imagined situation - were somebody to do something/if somebody were to do something

'Even if England were to win the next two matches, Germany would still be three points ahead.'

'Were we to offer you the job, would you take it?'"

There's also a bit about "was/were to" at Wikipedia:

So, taking on board what you've said about this being a real conditional, I would drop the "was/were to" construction altogether and simply write "He was convinced that if he moved his arm, it would break."

Warsaw Will June 4, 2014, 12:51pm

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That should of course read - "If he were to move his arm" means exactly the same as "If he was to move his arm", the only difference is one of formality.

Warsaw Will June 4, 2014, 12:53pm

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Yes     No