Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Backshifted Conditionals

Posted by Neal on October 6, 2014

A few posts back I wrote about some unusual conditional sentences that didn’t fit neatly into a neat 2×2 grid of open-vs-remote, nonpast-vs-past conditional sentences. Now, after teaching my ESL composition students about English conditionals and having them search for real examples in published academic papers, I’ve come across another kind of off-the-grid conditional. Two students each found an example of it. Here’s one of them:

The letter sent home to parents indicated that if the second-grade children did not have African American attire, they could come dressed as zebras, tigers, lions, and so on. (link)

(It came from a paper on education, but I didn’t have the students provide source information, and a quick Google search hasn’t turned it up. If I find out the source later, I will link it.) On the surface, it looks like a present-time remote conditional, like the example If he were sorry, he would apologize in that 2×2 grid in the earlier post. Oh, what the heck, I’ll just paste it in again here:

Open and Remote Conditionals

Open and Remote Conditionals

But it doesn’t seem to have the meaning of a remote conditional. Whereas If he were sorry implies that he’s not sorry, if the second-grade children did not have African American attire doesn’t imply that they actually do have it. It seems to be an open conditional: if they have it, they wear it; if not, they dress as safari animals. So where does it fit in?

I realized that a past-tense function that I hadn’t included in the grid was coming into play. You’ll notice that the light green squares at top right and bottom left each use past tense. In the bottom left, the past tense is performing its usual function of showing past time. In the top right, it’s performing its secondary function of showing modal remoteness (aka unlikelihood or impossibility). But there’s a third function of the past tense, known as backshifting. That’s the reason for the was in a sentence like He said his name was Biff, even if his name still is Biff. The is of My name is Biff gets pulled into the past tense when this sentence becomes reported speech and the main verb in the past tense. The same thing is happening here; compare the original quotation with its non-backshifted counterpart:

The letter sent home to parents …
a. … indicates that if the second-grade children do not have African American attire, they can come dressed as zebras, tigers, lions, and so on. (present-time open conditional, not backshifted)
b. … indicated that if the second-grade children did not have African American attire, they could come dressed as zebras, tigers, lions, and so on. (present-time open conditional, backshifted)

Here’s the example the other student found:

Knowing that they might lose their work permits if they left Germany for more than three months, many immigrants decided to stay. (link)

Again, it looks like a present-time remote conditional, but we know that it’s talking about a historical time period, so it’s not present-time. Again, backshifting provides the explanation. Here’s the comparison:

Knowing that …
a. … they may lose their work permits if they leave Germany for more than three months, many immigrants decide to stay. (present-time open conditional, not backshifted)
b. … they might lose their work permits if they left Germany for more than three months, many immigrants decided to stay. (present-time open conditional, backshifted)

This example is a little more complicated, because it’s not immediately apparent what the verbs in the conditional sentence are backshifting to match. But if we expand the reduced participial clause Knowing that… to a finite clause, we can see that the conditionals are backshifting in response to the understood time frame of Knowing:

a. Because they know they may lose their work permits if they leave Germany for more than three months, many immigrants decide to stay. (present-time open conditional, not backshifted)
b. Because they knew they might lose their work permits if they left Germany for more than three months, many immigrants decided to stay. (present-time open conditional, backshifted)

Where do these off-the-grid, backshifted conditionals fit into the picture? We need to bring backshifting into the diagram, moving it into the third dimension to make a 2x2x2 cube of conditionals: open-vs-remote cutting one way; nonpast-time-vs-past-time another; backshifted or not cutting a third way. As it turns out, though, not all of those eight cells are filled. I’ll have more on this in a future post, when I hope to have an updated conditionals diagram that incorporates backshifting. In the meantime, though, I’ll finish by taking the two open conditionals in the diagram and backshifting them for you:

She says that if he knows the answer, he will tell us. (present time, not backshifted)
She said that if he knew the answer, he would tell us. (past time, backshifted)
She says that if he knew the answer, he never told us. (present time, not backshifted)
She said that if he had known the answer, he never had told us. (past time, backshifted)

4 Responses to “Backshifted Conditionals”

  1. C Baker said

    What the hell is “African American attire”???

    • Neal said

      Good question, as Glen notes as well. You’ll have to ask the original author. The sentence is in the second paragraph of page 60 of the document, which I have now linked (thanks to Henry Juan, who follows me on Facebook).

  2. 1. Your last set of examples is billed as “taking the two open conditionals in the diagram and backshifting them for you,” but the examples don’t seem to correspond to those in the diagram (which all relate to apologizing).

    2. I had the same question as C Baker. I wonder if the original sentence actually said African attire, not African-American. That would make more sense as an alternative to dressing as an African animal like a zebra or tiger.

    • Neal said

      Ah, you’re right. I have two versions of this diagram, and was mentally picturing the one with people knowing or not knowing answers. But it seems I actually put in my “all apologies” version here.

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