In the first two parts of this series on modals, I made a quick review of the modal-pairs “will” and “would,” “can” and “could,” and “shall” and “should” as function words that work with verbs to convey various shades of necessity, advice, ability, expectation, permission, or possibility. This was to put in context a Filipina English teacher’s exasperation over the strong preference—often erroneous—by Filipino writers for the modals “would” and “could” in their writing.
This time we will take up how these modal auxiliaries work to convey varying degrees of conditionality, or the idea that the action in the main clause can take place only if the condition in the subordinate clause—the “if”-clause—is fulfilled. This is not a rigorously taught and a hardly appreciated aspect of modality that, I think, makes a lot of writers and editors blink when confronted by it. They simply couldn’t be absolutely sure whether to use “will” or “would” or “can” and “could” in tandem with the verb’s base form—or perhaps just the verb’s simple present-tense form. They then use “would” or “could” as default modal and just hope for the best that they’ll get it right.
To eliminate such guesswork, we need to refamiliarize ourselves with the four types of conditional sentences, as follows:
1. The first conditional or real possibility sentence. It talks about a high degree of possibility that a particular condition or situation will happen in the future as a result of a possible future condition. It has this structure: the “if” clause states the condition in the present simple tense, is followed by a comma, then followed by the result clause in the form “will + base form of the verb,” as in “If you finish your novel by October, the publisher will give you a generous bonus.”
2. The second conditional or unreal possibility sentence. It talks about a possible but very unlikely result that the stated future condition will be fulfilled; in short, the stated outcome is an unreal possibility. It has this structure: the “if” clause states the future condition in the simple past tense, is followed by a comma, then followed by the future result clause in the form “would + base form of the verb,” as in “If I completed medical school, I would be a doctor.” The speaker here is talking of an unreal possibility because he didn’t complete medical school and didn’t become a doctor.
3. The third conditional or no possibility sentence. It talks about a condition in the past that didn’t happen, thus making it impossible for a wished-for result to have happened. It has this structure: the “if” clause states the impossible past condition using the past perfect tense “had + past participle of the verb,” is followed by a comma, then followed by the impossible past result in the form “would have + past participle of the verb,” as in “If I had saved enough money, I would have bought that brand-new car.” The speaker here is talking of an impossible situation because he had not saved enough money and had not bought that car. (Also used for such sentences are the modal forms “should have,” “could have,” and “might have.”)
4. The zero conditional sentence or certainty. It talks about a condition whose result is always true and always the same, like a scientific fact. It has this structure: the “if” clause states the condition in the simple present tense, is followed by a comma, then followed by the result clause also in the simple present tense, as in “If people don’t eat, they die of starvation.”
I trust that this review will help Filipino writers finally do away with guesswork when making a choice between “will” and “would” and “can” and “could” in establishing modality.
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