Mixed Conditionals Explained – Perfect tense Conditionals (Part 3)

The previous post looked at some “what if” statements using present conditionals that imagined how the present might change if something in the past had been different.

This post will look at some more “what if” statements, but with a slightly different focus. Instead of asking how an imagined past might have affected the present, perfect conditionals start with an imagined present and ask how it happened.

…things would be different

The difference between present and perfect conditionals depends mainly on the tense of the if clause.

As we’ve seen, present conditionals use perfect past tense, in which a past, imaginary event is relative to some other event or action.

However, perfect conditionals use simple past tense for the if clause (and a subjunctive).

For example:

  • “If I were wealthy, I would own a yacht.” (Or, “I would own a yacht if I were wealthy.”) NOTE: the “were” of he subjunctive form is used here.

In this example, the speaker refers to the past in general terms without connection to any specific event or action. The possession of wealth simply needed to start sometime in the past.

Furthermore, the perfect conditional occupies its own unique space in time. Whereas, present conditionals imagine an alternative moment concurrent with the speaker’s present, perfect conditionals imagine an alternative moment that does not exist in the speaker’s present.

In the above example, the speaker does not own a yacht, although being wealthy would change this situation.

Note that present and perfect conditionals seem to express roughly the same ideas. We can tell them apart superficially by the tense of the if clause, but the difference in meaning is nuanced. Consider the above example rewritten as a present conditional:

  • “If I had been wealthy, I would own a yacht.”

Take some time to reflect on the two statements: how do they position the speaker differently in space and time?

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