When Exactly Didn’t It Happen?

Here’s a pop quiz. Read the following passage and determine whether the tenses in the third sentence are correct—and why (what’s a quiz without the question why):

I went to Chicago for a week’s vacation last year. The weather was just outstanding—sun and blue sky every day. If I traveled the week before, I would not have been so lucky. It rained for three days straight.

It’s not a trick question, but it’s not easy, either. The third sentence begins with the word if, a subordinating conjunction that signals what is called a conditional sentence. A basic conditional sentence has two clauses, one which gives the circumstance, or condition, that is to be assumed, and another which gives the consequence that results from that condition. The first clause, more often than not beginning with the word if, is called the antecedent; the second clause, often (but often not, as here) beginning with the word then, is called the consequent. These two parts, antecedent and consequent, can appear in that order, or they can be reversed. Either way, the logic stays the same.

The odd thing about a conditional sentence is that neither clause in itself is actually asserting anything. The point of a clause is to present something (the subject) and then say something about it (the predicate), and in doing that, declare that the thought of the clause is true. In a conditional sentence, though, the assertion we’re making lies in the connection between the two clauses, not in the statement either clause, antecedent or consequent, is making alone. Human experience is such that there are all manner of ways in which these conditional clauses can be connected. The one that concerns us in our example here is called a condition contrary to fact.

The writer says, if I traveled the week before, I would not have been so lucky. Did he in fact travel the week before? Of course not; that is the point of his conditional sentence: to assume, or hypothesize, for a moment that he did, and to state what would have resulted from having done so. The sentence begins with the conjunction if and is asserting something that didn’t happen, so it is clear that this sentence is indeed a condition contrary to fact. But what about the tenses in each clause? The verb traveled in the antecedent is simple past, and the verb phrase would not have been in the consequent is past perfect. That is all important to understand in analyzing a conditional sentence, but so too is the mood of each verb.

Contrary-to-fact conditions require that their verbs be in the subjunctive mood. That makes sense because the only other practical option would be the indicative mood; but the point of the indicative is to assert fact, and that’s exactly not what a contrary-to-fact condition (aptly named) wants to do. So in our analysis, we have to account for both the tense and the mood of the verbs. Here, both verbs are in fact in the subjunctive mood, so the complete analysis we need is this: the verb of antecedent clause is simple past subjunctive, and the verb of the consequent clause is past perfect subjunctive.

Contrary-to-fact conditions have two forms, present and past, and each has a construction formula to rely on. If the condition you’re proposing is yet to happen, the antecedent clause must be in the past subjunctive and the consequent include the word would (or should or could or might) with the present infinitive of the main verb: If I traveled next week, I wouldn’t be so lucky [because it is supposed to rain]. But if the condition refers to the past, as is the case in our example, then the antecedent clause must be in the past perfect subjunctive and the consequent include the word would (or should or could or might) with the perfect infinitive of the main verb: If I had traveled the week before, I would not have been so lucky. So the writer—here’s the answer to our quiz—has used the simple past subjunctive in the first clause of his conditional sentence where he should have used the past perfect: traveled instead of had traveled, but his tense in the second clause is correct: would not have been.

And all that is just the tip of the iceberg, because that the subjunctive mood intends to represent a conceptual world, the world that is in our minds, which is often not as clear cut, as the psychologists will remind us, as the external world. Contrary conditions and the subjunctive mood they require give us a way to hypothesize, to think as if, which means our experience can be richer than the indicative alone could reveal. And richer, for better or worse, sometimes means more complex.


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