In every English language lesson, we run at some point into the question of how we explain the subjunctive [a.k.a. the Imagined World]:
If I were somebody else, I would do something else.
If I were you, I wouldn’t go to the party.
And immediately the question pops from the students
“Why do we have ‘were’ and why do we have ‘would’? Why is it not ‘am’ and ‘will’? ”
What are the grammar rules for this kind of sentence?
Well, let’s start by thinking about the meaning; before you present the grammatical rules, you have to explain why the British, the North Americans, the Australians etc. go to such lengths to express these meanings, to use these rules.
Why did they systematise it?
As always, when you try to understand something, you have to identify some significant difference.
The IF sentence can be broken into two parts (technically referred to as “clauses” which are sub-units of a sentence):
- There is an IF part &
- there is a main part;
The IF part always happens before the main part, so (in a sense) the main part is always in the future from the IF part point of view.
Both occur in an Imagined world (as opposed to the Real world).
“If I were” tells you I’m talking about an Imagined world. That is why it’s not “If I am”, because I am not you in the Real world.
The Real world is expressed using something called the Indicative mood. Now we are in the Imagined world expressed by something called the Subjunctive mood. Anyway enough technical lingo.
The difference in meaning is the difference between real and imagined.
I am not you, so we use a different form of the verb, which is “were”, which is not the Past Tense Simple (as it would be in the Real world).
This is the Imagined world, where we don’t care so much about Time as we care about Probability.
The probability is pretty small that I am you; I am not you, it’s close to zero probability, even though I can make an effort to imagine for a couple of seconds that I am you.
(Still pretending to be you) I want to say (in the main part) “I will not go to the party”, but that’s from the Real world, so it gets changed into the less probable “I wouldn’t go to the party”.
“will not” is also possible in the Imagined world (“If it rains, I will not go to the party”), but then it suggests that the probability is a bit higher.
By itself, “I will not go to the party” sounds like a decision not to go to the party in the Real world.
If we use the Present form in the IF part (“If it rains, I will not go to the party”), this sounds much more likely. “If it rains” – this is an imagined condition, “I will not go to the party”.
This one sounds like a 50-50 split:
If it rains, then I won’t go (50%) ; if it doesn’t rain, then I’ll go (50%).
Now we see that the meaning of the IF sentences (Imagined worlds) is that of assigning probabilities to imagined actions.
We had 50%, when we use something that looks like the Present.
We have much less than 50% when it looks like Past.
Can we have 0%? Yes, we can have 0% and that’s for imagined possible situations in the past that did not come about, that did not happen:
“If I had been sick, I wouldn’t have gone to the party”.
“If I had been sick” is what we call the Past Perfect, which sounds like a really far-away past.
It’s a past which is finished before another past; that’s why we call it Perfect.
“I wouldn’t have gone” also sounds like a Past: a Future Past Perfect.
It didn’t actually happen = 0% probability for this imagined world.
“If I had been sick, I wouldn’t have gone to the party”, but in Reality I went to the party.
Here the Imagined world and the Real world break apart and go on different paths, but I can go back to a moment in the Past, before the party; in the IF sentence we have a situation that did not come about (“I wasn’t sick”), so in reality “I went to the party”, although “If I had been sick, I wouldn’t have gone to the party”.
Now, we have to ask ourselves:
Why do we have this obsession with assigning probabilities to actions that would happen in an Imagined world and contrast these with actions that happen in the Real world?
The real world is clearly shown using the Indicative mood.
It will rain.
All these sentences show what we think happens in the Real world. With the IF sentence [we show] what can happen in our heads. Why do we concentrate so much on what could happen in our heads (in English)?
One theory that I have (which is just a theory) is that we are trying here to penetrate reality using another tool (a linguistic device);
I make an effort, in my head, whereby I can imagine a world to which I have no access with my bodily senses.
If I were on the moon, then I would be jumping much higher than I can now on Earth.
Here we are talking about a future potential. This “would be jumping” shows me a possible (albeit highly unlikely) course of action premised on the condition of me being on the moon, which is very low probability. I can’t imagine somebody paying for my trip there, anytime soon. Or anybody’s trip, for that matter.
We can even talk about extremely remote probabilities in English. We have this option for creating meaning as removed from experienced Reality as our mind is willing to go:
“If I were on the edge of a black-hole…”
This is a huge leap of imagination. Obviously, it’s an impossibility, right? Hopefully it’s an impossibility, hopefully we don’t have a black-hole spawning next to us. I don’t even know if that’s possible.
The point is that I can even penetrate with my mind as far as light years from where we are now situated, using (the English) language.
Then again, I can also penetrate into different times, projecting myself into the past:
“If I had been here when the dinosaurs were living, I would have been eaten by a dinosaur.”
I can go back to a time millions of years ago when the human species had not yet evolved into being and I can imagine what would have happened (which sounds a bit like Jurassic Park without cars, electric fences, or glasses full of water, for that matter).
In English I can create meaning starting from a very wild assumption, given that my body is bound to the present reality (=this time, this space here on earth in 2014).
I can go into another place (on the edge of a black-hole), or I can go back in time (to the time of dinosaurs), or I can try to imagine a very rose future:
If I get 2 million dollars I will buy a house, I’ll go to aikido school, I’ll give it to the poor in Sri Lanka.
What will you do with this money? Now you can imagine this.
This sounds a bit trivial, when we talk about $2 million and what you (personally) will do with this money, but imagine how useful it is to have this tool.
This grammatical trick which we have in English allows a scientist to set out theories.
The scientific method is premised on the idea that I am launching a hypothesis (a theory about an Imagined world), then I test it and see how it fares in the Real world (though Observation) allowing me to draw a conclusion from this (a theoretical model to make predictions about Future probable events).
If I am to give the law of gravity, it helps to be able to say (succinctly): “If I drop this ball, it will fall to the ground”.
Now I have a rule and it is formulated very elegantly in a very simple sentence. It tells you what the probabilities are very clearly:
- “If I drop this ball, it will fall”. That’s 50-50.
- “If I dropped this ball (we’re on the moon now), it would fall”. Now I am not so sure. 20%?
I haven’t been to the moon and I haven’t dropped a ball on the moon, so I don’t know if this would happen. However, it is probable that it will behave in the same manner as it does on earth, based on my actual experience in the Real world, even though dropping the ball on the moon is Imagined.
The probability goes down because my knowledge is incomplete and my confidence (=the probability I assign to this) is much lower because I haven’t tried it yet.
However, I could try it (theoretically): I could go to the moon, if I got the $2 million, right?
I arrive on the moon and what do I do on the moon? I drop the ball.
I can also ask:
“If I had dropped the ball (at a time before Earth gravity kicked in), where would it have stopped?”
Then I can imagine this situation and then I can look at this as a possible situation that did not occur in Reality, but that would still afford me the opportunity to formulate a model about a future in which gravity stops working on Earth.
We can speculate that the English language was very well-suited to the Enlightenment centuries during which the scientific revolution takes off; we can speculate that English language speakers (Locke, Hume, Newton) had an advantage over anyone who spoke a language in which the Imagined world could not be put into words as readily.
Of course, these guys were also depending much more on Latin (Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica), so we shouldn’t be too proud of English since this (presumed) advantage comes from further back in the past.
This was a time when people began to systematise and use their language resources to talk about cause and effect, causality and so on. We have similar resources to express the Imagined world in English, in Latin, in German and most other European languages.
How about in other languages? Well, in other languages we can express these meanings, but we can’t play as much, we don’t have as much freedom to play with the words. We have perhaps different areas of exploration that are open to us when we use tools available in other non-European languages, but in English we have this excellent tool to use whenever we talk about an Imagined world and contrast it with the Real world and make predictions about the Real world.
And it’s all happening in our heads.