Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Open Conditionals with the Past Perfect

Posted by Neal on July 8, 2014

Flashman and the Redskins

When Glen and I were kids, for a couple of years our family would read aloud from novels after supper. I remember we did a few that you’ve probably never heard of, plus a Hardy Boys mystery and Johnny Tremain. But by the time we hit junior high school, the habit had kind of fizzled out, which was too bad. As regular readers know, we do a lot of reading aloud here, from Dr. Seuss and books about barnyard animals when they were in preschool, to Henry Huggins, Harry Potter, and other YA stuff when they were older. Now that Doug and Adam are teenagers, I can at least say that I’ve maintained the tradition for longer than it lasted from my childhood. And now I can read them R-rated stuff that I could never have read them a few years ago–for example, our current selection: Flashman and the Redskins.

This is one of my favorites in the Flashman series, so I’m having fun re-reading it now, complete with a British accent that I wouldn’t dare do within earshot of any actual British people. As I was reading from it a few days ago, my eye was caught by this sentence, which had seemed unremarkable in 1993, when I first read the book:

If the Apaches had posted sentries, I suppose they had been dealt with. . . .

What was the big deal? Well, a few years ago I wrote this post about conditional sentences. Following the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, I divided them into open conditionals (describing situations that might actually happen in the future, or may have happened in the past), and remote conditionals (describing situations that are unlikely to happen, or probably did not happen). Also following CGEL, the past tense can show actual past time (see the bottom left corner), or remoteness in the present or future time (see the top right corner). What it can’t do (at least in Standard English) is show both past time and remoteness simultaneously. For that, you need the past perfect tense. This is what you get in the dark green, bottom left corner: If he had been sorry, he would have apologized. In my diagram, that’s the only place the past perfect tense appears.

Open and Remote Conditionals

Open and Remote Conditionals

But I got to thinking later on… You could have open conditionals where both sentences were in the present tense, like If he’s sorry, why isn’t he apologizing? You could have open conditionals in the past tense, as in If he was sorry, he never apologized. And there were even possibilities that I hadn’t put on the diagram; for example, why couldn’t I have an open conditional with present perfect tense? Something like … If Doug has finished his homework, then he has definitely left the house by now. If I could do an open conditional with the present perfect, why couldn’t I do one with the past perfect? Why couldn’t I have an ordinary, open conditional, in which the past perfect wasn’t showing a combination of past time and remoteness, but was just performing its usual function of showing a past time prior to another past time? I imagined sentences and contexts like these:

Back in those days, Doug liked to go out and ride his bike at every opportunity. I was coming home from work and wondered if he would be home. I knew that if he had finished his homework, then he had certainly already left the house.

Back in those days, when we went to Adam’s weekly violin lesson, I could always tell if Adam had practiced earlier in the week. If he had practiced, then he wasn’t nervous. [Actually, this one is a mixed past-time/even-further-past-time conditional.]

So now you can see why the Flashman example caught my eye. It was a real example of an open conditional with past perfect tenses. In fact, it isn’t the only one I’ve found. I’ve collected a couple of others, but this most recent example gave me three, which made enough to post about. One was from an article in New Scientist entitled “How did we lose a 1400-tonne ocean liner?” They wrote about a plane searching locations where radar had registered an object:

But the plane dispatched to the position of another smaller blip found nothing. If there had been a lifeboat, it had sunk.

The other one came from a book Glen gave me a few years ago, The Experts’ Guide to 100 Things Everyone Should Know How to Do, edited by Samantha Ettus. One of the essays is “Make Conversation,” by Morris L. Reid. One of his rules was to keep up with current events in order to be able to have topics of conversation. He gave this analogy:

What happened in school if you hadn’t read the previous night’s assignment? You most likely had nothing to say.

And now to finish with a more typical conditional with a past perfect tense: If I hadn’t been thinking about open conditionals, I wouldn’t have noticed anything interesting about these three examples!

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8 Responses to “Open Conditionals with the Past Perfect”

  1. I LOVE grammar discussions like this one! Very clear and thorough — great post!

  2. dainichi said

    One interesting question now is: how do you turn these perfective aspects into remote conditionals.

    For the present perfect, it seems to take the same form as the past (subjunctive past perfect, or whatever your preferred nomenclature is), e.g.

    I don’t think Doug has finished his homework. If he had finished it, he would be out of the door by now.

    For past perfect, I’m not sure English has a way to express this at all:

    I don’t think a boat had sunk there. If a boat had had sunk there (???), there would have been ripples on the surface.

    • Neal said

      I’d thought about that a little. It’s the next logical step:

      1. Remoteness in the present requires past tense.
      2. But now what do I use if I want to talk about remoteness in the past?
      3. Remoteness in the past requires the past perfect tense.
      4. But now what do I use if I want to talk about remoteness in the past-before-the past?
      5. Even if we had a tense for this, where does it end?

      At some point it all just flattens out. It kind of reminds me of wondering where it ceases to matter when A knows that B knows X, and B knows that A knows that B knows X, but A doesn’t know that B knows that A knows that B knows X…

  3. dw said

    @Dainichi

    I can’t come up with a context in which

    “I don’t think a boat had sunk there”

    is grammatical in my idiolect.

    If I wanted to make the situation past perfect and remote, I could say something like this:

    I didn’t think a boat had sunk there. If a boat had (in fact/somehow) sunk there, there would have been ripples on the surface.

  4. dainichi said

    @Dw

    I can’t come up with a context in which “I don’t think a boat had sunk there” is grammatical in my idiolect.

    Really? How about:

    Yesterday, a lot of people said a boat had just sunk there. At that time, I believed it, but thinking about it now, I don’t think a boat had sunk there.

    I agree that “If a boat had sunk” works, I admit I was playing Devil’s advocate. So I guess the present perfect, past, and past perfect all take the same form in remote conditionals.

  5. bradvines2014 said

    NOT “had sunk” guys, SANK. You’re in over your heads. You’re jamming. You know what that means? You know what “jamming” is?

    • Neal said

      “Sank” for a past-time open conditional, such as “If the boat sank, we never heard about it,” or for a present-time remote conditional, such as, “If the boat sank right now, would we be able to swim to shore?” But for a past-time remote conditional, at least in Standard English, you’ll want the past perfect tense, “had sunk”.

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