In an Ideal World

As I mentioned recently in two earlier posts (In a Contrary Mood and It’s Inevitable), understanding conditional sentences can make us more sharply aware of just how one thing may follow from another. Real conditions mean if this is true, then that is true, and contrary-to-fact conditions mean if this were true (but it’s not), then that would be true (but it’s not). Real conditions express an inevitable, almost mechanical connection between this and that, and contrary-to-fact conditions express a theoretical connection between things that are not true.

But consider this. You work for a firm that is reviewing the application of someone whose record and character you believe manifestly disqualify him for an important position, and you say to a colleague: Should they end up hiring him, I would quit. The conditional clause here, should they end up hiring him, seems to express some degree of doubt or uncertainty about whether or not the dubious fellow might indeed be hired. It can’t be introducing a real condition, which would be if they end up hiring him; the real condition would be saying in effect, if I assume it to be a fact that they will hire him, it will be a fact that I will quit. Nor can the sentence we have be introducing a contrary-to-fact condition, which would be if they had hired him, because our statement has to do with the future, not the past. So what’s going on?

Conditional sentences like this one that cannot say with certainty that the proviso on which they rest is either true or false are called ideal conditions. The term ideal stems from the word idea, so the notion is that because one can’t be certain about the likelihood of the condition—whether or not the poor lout will in fact be hired—all we can do is think about what is to some degree likely—but not certain—to happen in the event of a to-some-degree-likely event. Ideal means not real but not impossible either: whether or not they would be so mistaken as to hire him I don’t know, but supposing that to be true, I would quit.

It’s a marvel that language can allow us to look at the world in so subtle a manner. Ideal conditions have to do with what is called contingency, what may happen and what is liable to happen as a result. They bring our attention to that world of shade and color that stands between black and white, yes and no, possible and impossible, and for that reason alone they are worth thinking about because they guard against becoming overconfident, if not even cocksure, about things. We don’t as a rule like uncertainty; we want facts and answers and there’s no time to waste. The pace and haste of the modern world has shunted aside the need to sometimes be more perceptive and discerning about circumstances, and so these ideal conditional sentences with their subjunctive verbs take on an old-fashioned sound. We have replaced them with the factual indicative mood of a real condition and brought them up to today’s decided date: If they hire him, I’ll quit.

But not quite. If in reply to your telling me about your worries at work, I say somewhat abruptly, Well, I’m sorry to hear about that. I, instead, am leaving for vacation tomorrow, rain or shine, I have expressed, albeit in reverse order, an ideal condition in a wording that is still acceptable to us. Rain or shine means if it rain or if it shine, both verbs subjunctive and together pointing uncertainly to a future weather condition. For who among us can tell without a doubt what tomorrow’s weather will be?


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