• How third conditionals differ from subjunctive sentences

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    YOU are given this sentence, “Franz didn’t take that job he was offered,” and you are asked to assume that you are Franz. How do you construct the statement in the affirmative?

    This question was recently posted in my Facebook page by Jakub Res of Brno,Czech Republic. Specifically, he wanted to know how to construct the statement as a third conditional sentence: “Does one have to stick to the past simple, ‘If I had been Franz, I would have taken that job he was offered,’ or does one shift the tenses instead from past simple to past perfect, ‘If I had been Franz, I would have taken that job he had been offered’?”

    My reply to Jakub:
    I don’t think the situation you described can be properly stated using a third conditional (no possibility) sentence. This is because a third conditional talks about a real-life condition in the past that actually didn’t happen, thus making it impossible for the wished-for result to have come true. This type of sentence is in the indicative mood, meaning that it denotes an act or state in a real-world situation. It consists of an “if” clause that states the impossible past real-life condition using the past perfect tense “had + past participle of the verb,” followed by a comma, then followed by the impossible past result in the form “would have + past participle of the verb.”

    Here’s an example of a third conditional: “If I had saved enough money, I would have bought that house.” The speaker here is talking of an unrealized real-world outcome—purchase of the house—because he was unable to save enough money for it for whatever reason.

    In contrast, the situation here involves an act or state that’s contingent on the possible outcome of the speaker’s wish, desire, or imagined situation. In particular, it’s the outcome of an unreal situation or an idea contrary to fact. This is because it’s impossible for Franz to be the speaker himself; it’s just a wished-for, unrealizable imaginary situation. The sentence therefore couldn’t be a third conditional sentence, which as I earlier explained talks about an unrealizable but real-world outcome. This being the case, that sentence couldn’t be in the indicative mood but in the subjunctive mood instead, and there’s no such thing as a third conditional in the subjunctive mood.

    Typically, the subjunctive takes the following form to denote the outcome of an unreal situation or of an idea contrary to fact: (a) an “if”-clause where the verb consistently uses the subjunctive plural past-tense “were” to indicate an impossible supposition or possibility, and (b) an outcome clause of the form “subject + would have + past participle of the verb.” The sentence for the situation you presented should then take this subjunctive form: “If I were Franz, I would have taken that job he was offered.” The pivotal difference here is the use of the subjunctive “were” rather than the indicative past-tense “was” or the past-perfect “had been.”

    One other thing: Since that particular subjunctive sentence doesn’t have a reporting verb, no shifting of tenses is involved. And in the particular case of third conditional sentences, reported utterances don’t backshift at all; they don’t follow the normal sequence-of-tenses rule for reported speech, which prescribes that the operative verb of the utterance should backshift one tense into the past when the reporting verb is in the past tense (http://tinyurl.com/m99cq6o).

    So, if the first-person speaker used “said” as the reporting verb for this third conditional sentence that I gave earlier as an example, “If I had saved enough money, I would have bought that house,” the reported speech would take this form: “I said that if I had saved enough money, I would have bought that house.”There would be no backshifting in the reported utterance.
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    Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Visit me on Facebook. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.

    j8carillo@yahoo.com

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    2 Comments

    1. Sir, I would like to know if you can post some of your advises in youtube? Most of the teachers there are from India and their English is more on the British way than American what we Filipinos are accustomed. Thank You again.

      • Jon, the grammar and usage lessons taken up in Jose Carillo’s English Forum are mostly text-based, so they aren’t very suitable for posting on YouTube. But I can assure you that those lessons would be useful whether the user or learner uses the American English or British English standard. There are certain differences between American English and British English, of course, but when they are important or crucial to the particular usage, the discussions in the Forum clearly indicate the distinctions. So everyone anywhere in the world who wishes to improve their English shouldn’t hesitate to visit the Forum (http://josecarilloforum.com), ask questions, and participate in its discussions. There’s much to be learned there about the English language regardless of one’s English standard.