Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Conditional Love

If the filibuster is eliminated for judicial nominations, Bush would enjoy greater latitude in filling vacancies on appellate courts.
Officials of the organization said that if the bill passes, it would prevent the agency from providing information to the public.
No. If the filibuster is eliminated, Bush will enjoy greater latitude. If the filibuster were eliminated, Bush would enjoy greater latitude.

If the bill passes, it will prevent blah blah blah. If the bill passed, it would prevent blah blah blah.

The tenses have to match. Is that so difficult? Is/does/will. Was (were)/did/would. Get all conditional on us, by all means, in a sentence in which the conditionality is implied but the present tense never raises its ugly head (otherwise, Albom-breath, you're assuming a future event that may or may not happen):
Blah blah blah about what the bill would do. It would prevent the agency from providing information to the public.


DaveK said...

If the filibuster were eliminated, Bush would enjoy greater latitude. It's the subjunctive mood, so the verb to be becomes were.

Bill said...

Of course; it's fixed now. Thanks, Dave.

DaveK said...

No problem, Bill. It's a pity that Gwen Stefani is unlikely to read the above.

Eric "Babe" Morse said...

Man, davek beat me to the punch. I think one of the main things we fight is that as poor English becomes the norm, proper structure is sounding more and more wrong. It used to be the other way 'round. BTW, this was my tract on Gwen Stefani and her desecration of subjunctive mood.

Stephen Jones said...

Pity poor Dubya. All these legislative hurdles to pass. Now if he were a copy editor, he could just pull out a law from his nearest bodily orifice and announce it!

The tenses do not have to match.

'Would' is not a past tense. It is a modal, and modals are outside the tense system. Many moons ago, 'would' was the past tense of 'will', but the whole English verb system has changed since then, and about the only time one of the distant modals refers unequivocally to past time is when 'could' is used to descibe ability.

Past Simple or Past Subjunctive + 'would' (or another one of the distant modals) is a very usual collocation. So usual in fact that at some time in the past it was given the unfortunate label of 'second conditional' and myriad EFL teachers have been confounded by having to explain all the examples where either tense is joined with something else.

What your post shows is not only a belief in a non-existent rule, but a lack of understanding of the various options available in English. The second form of the verb, whether the past tense, or the modals sometimes called past modals, differs from the first form, or present, in that it implies distance.

That distance can be distance backwards in time, which is by far the most common case, or emotional distance, or distance from fact, or social distance. The case that concerns us here is distance from fact or emotional distance.

The so-called first conditional If the fillibuster is eliminated, Bush will enjoy greater latitude suggests that the speaker views this a a serious possibility, and is possibly emotionally close to the issue. The so-called second conditional If the fillibuster was/were eliminated, Bush will enjoy greater latitude. suggests that the possibility is considerably more remote. In between, we have either If the fillibuster was/were eliminated, Bush will enjoy greater latitude and If the fillibuster is eliminated, Bush would enjoy greater latitude.

Note that in all four cases the objective facts are the same. That is because tense in
English is used to describe the subjective viewpoint of the speaker and not to reflect objective reality (though they will often coincide).

You can object to the mix on stylistic grounds, but frankly, the original text seems fine to me.

Spelling and punctuation are conventions, and it is legitimate to argue that some people's usage is incorrect. But when it comes to describing the language itself rules can only reflect usage.

Bill said...

All-righty then. If it rains tomorrow, I would not play tennis.

Stephen Jones said...

How about these:
If it rains tomorrow, you'd be very stupid to go and play tennis.
If we arrive tomorrow, that would be wonderful.
If he fails his English exam, I wouldn't be in the least surprised.
If Bill Walsh does come to London this summer, the Queen would host a banquet in his honour.

And then examples where the past isn't a subjunctive.
If there was a bomb scare at the airport, his plane will be really late."
"If he passed by the off-licence on the way here, he's sure to bring a bottle of wine."

Stephen Jones said...

If you're not busy this weekend, I would like to have a game of tennis with you.
If you have more time, I would love to give you more examples.

And how about past perfects with the future.
If he'd really been seen lurking around the house before the murder happened, then we'll be getting calls for witnesses any time soon.

Bill said...

There are shades of meaning in those examples that I just don't see in my original sentences.

Stephen Jones said...

Which original sentence?
*If it rains tomorrow, I wouldn't play tennis.
is ungrammatical. There's no scope for shades of meanings there.

But in the case of the filibuster there is scope for different shades of meanings.

The $64,000 is why the difference? It's not to do with matching tenses n both clauses. Apart from anything else you can construct reasonable sentences with almost any tense in either clause.

The answer to your question Is that so difficult? is
Yes, unfortunately, it is.

Lee Zurligen said...

Do what you like, but if it rains tomorrow, I wouldn't play tennis.

testing said...

Do what you like, but if it rains tomorrow, I wouldn't play tennis
There's an implied if I were you at the end of that sentence.

aparker54 said...

Mixed conditions were kosher in Latin and Greek; John Eastwood, In the Oxford Guuide to English Grammar (1994) says, "Verbs in conditional sentences *257* There are many different combinations of verb forms." (I wish he'd used the terms "protasis" and "apodosis"!)

I'd think that a "should-would" condition would be better for the filibuster sentence. The "were" gives it too much a sense of reality. "If the filibuster should be eliminated" seems closer to the situation. And the verb forms actually do match (whereas they didn't with "were" and "would be")! Not that I think they should.

aparker54 said...

By the way, in my last post, I meant "the 'were' gives it too much a sense of UNreality." Unfortunately, the nuclear option's prospect's are better than "were" implies.

Seattle said...

I want to be like you! I love this blog and reading about this stuff. (And now I have a little crush on Bill.) Could/would/will/can somebody please recommend a book that explains advanced grammar?

"Modal" is a new one for me.

Bill said...

This is already obvious to certain people, but I think learning those kinds of labels is a waste of time. Unless you're really, really good at wielding them, they're more likely to lead you astray than to enlighten you.

Stephen Jones said...

'Modal' is not advanced. It's only one step up from verb or adjective.

The point is not that the grammar is advanced, but that as a native speaker you don't need the terminology to speak English correctly. On the other hand any foreign student past the elementary stage will probably be familiar with the forms, and his teacher certainly will.

That does make it a little difficult to recommend a book. The standard style book is aimed at people who already know how to speak the language, and the standard EFL grammar is aimed at trying to get foreigners to produce the correct phrases so neither is really appropriate.

The two standard Grammars are "The Cambridge English Grammar" and "The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English" but both are nearly 2,000 pages long and not meant to be read straight through.

There are shorter forms of both, but again they are reference books. Perhaps I ought to get down and write what you're asking for :)

I would recommend you start by reading "The Language Instinct" by Stephen Pinker. It is exceptionally well-written and will give you an idea of the basic ideas in play.

Bill's worry about your by being led astray by 'these labels', by the way, is the result of an unfortunate experience with his electrician, who has caused countless problems with the wiring ever since he started wielding labels like 'ohms' and 'volts' and 'parallel circuits' instead of the 'blue wire', and the 'green wire' and 'the thingumyjig over there'.

Stephen Jones said...

Whoops! The second Grammar should be "
A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language " by R. Quirk et al. Varying versions of what is basically the same book have been published over the last 30 years.

Le Petomane said...

Seattle, if modal auxiliaries are new to you, I'd recommend "Writing Good Sentence" by Claude W. Faulkner as a nice introduction to formal grammar.

It is a college-level textbook, so it won't insult your intellect, but you should be able to work through it on your own.

Bill said...

The fix for that other thing, Seattle:

Go to http://www.theslot.com/gifs/walshb.jpg. Select Tools / Internet Options / Advanced, and make sure Show Pictures is checked.

aparker54 said...

Another way to start, Seattle, would be to study German (or another Germanic language) and Latin, plus a little Anglo-Saxon.

Seattle said...

Thanks for these recommendations. I'm an editor who often has to explain why I changed something. "Uh, 'cause it sounds better this way" goes only so far.

Stephen Jones said...

"Uh, 'cause it sounds better this way" goes only so far.
It is, of course, the only valid reason for making a change. Change something because it doesn't sound right, and then look for justification; never change something because the 'rule' tells you so, and then kid yourself it sounds better.

As a descriptivist I'm more likely to give justifications for not changing anything :) Maybe you need a stylebook.

Bill's "The Elephants of Style" is one of the more sensible ones, though you should put black marker pen through his comments on restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses. The usage pages for the American Heritage Dictionary are excellent, but incomplete, and of course you should increase the blood pressure of the anally retentive by always carrying around a copy of "Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage". For British usage refer to "The New Fowler's Modern English Usage" by Burchfield.

And read the weekly columns by James L. Kilpatrick which are syndicated with the title "The Writer's Art"; Kilpatrick's feel for the language is unsurpassed.

And do remember that Dave Barry is America's answer to Noam Chomsky.

Matt said...

Wait a minute. If it rains tomorrow, I won't play tennis. What's wrong with that?

Bill said...

Talking about myself, that's what I'd say. Lee's clever contribution demonstrates where the "wouldn't" in my reductio ad absurdum would be correct, but it's a different idea -- a way of giving advice to someone else.

Stephen Jones said...

When you're talking about yourself there's less reason for doubt, so 'wouldn't' wouldn't be right.

'Present/will' is the most common collocation by a long shot, but the matter isn't as simple as having a rule that says 'would' is wrong.

Incidnetally, what Bill doesn't tell us is if the contentious phrase comes from the court officials or from the reporter. If from the reporter, I would agree with Bill's strictures. It's not a reporter's job to use clever off-beat collocations to imply shades of doubt not expressed by the original speaker.

nikolai said...

Can someone explain why the original "fixed" version of the bill sentence:

If the bill passed, it would prevent...


If the bill passed, it would have prevented...

Bill said...

Different idea; we're not talking about a bill that didn't pass. But here's how that would go:

If the bill had passed, it would have prevented ...

Stephen Jones said...


If the bill had passed it would have prevented...

If the bill passed, it would have prevented...

are possible but the meanings are different. The first, which is as Bill says, by far the most likely in this case, is a remote conditional, and implies the bill did not pass.

The second is an open conditional and implies you do not know if the bill passed or not; that is to say you are talking about a real possibility in the past.

Also have a look at this neat little distinction:

If Jane was late again this morning, the boss would have been furious.

Note that you may well be using the preterite here to refer to a real possibility in the past as opposed the subjunctive or modal preterite
as in

If Jane were late this morning, the boss would have been furious.

where it is clear that Jane was not late.

Bill said...

I had a preterite removed as a precaution once -- thank goodness it turned out not to be modal.

Stephen Jones said...

Must have been modular. Just swap it out.