Grammar Lesson: Conditionals and the Agony of Bella Swan

I’ve had the Conditionals tutorial in mind for several days now, and since I just read a sample of Twilight, now I have some example sentences to use!

There are three forms of conditional statements commonly used in English, and if you have no idea what I’m on about, don’t worry: I was a grammar geek from the playpen and even I didn’t know the terminology for conditionals until I went abroad to teach English. Most Anglophones use the grammar, at least for the first two forms, correctly, but lately I’ve seen increasing misuse of the third.

Any conditional statement has two clauses, and the order in which they are expressed is not important. One clause expresses an event which could be expected or hypothetical, future or past, and the other clause expresses the estimated consequence of that event.

First conditional:

If I have to read a whole book with Bella Swan as the narrator, I will drink myself into a coma.

The first clause is the event (If I have to read a whole book…), and it is stated in the present tense, which means this scenario is entirely possible. The second clause, after the comma, is the expected consequence of the event in present tense, and here we use the simple future tense.

The sentence can also be written thus:

I will drink myself into a coma if I have to read a whole book with Bella Swan as the narrator.

The clauses are switched around, and here we do not use the separating comma, but the information it communicates is identical. It’s entirely possible that the reading of Bella Swan’s inner voice will continue, in which case heavy drinking will commence.

Second Conditional:

If I knew someone like Bella Swan now, I would probably want to kick her ass.

In this case, the event in the first clause is hypothetical: I don’t currently know anyone comparable to Bella Swan, so there is no reason to worry about a near-30-year-old woman beating up some clueless, compulsively self-pitying teenager. We put the event in the simple past tense (If I knew) because I don’t actually know anyone like Bella, and the estimated consequence (I would want to kick her ass) is written as subject + “would” + verb. “Would” is the past tense of “will” and is used accordingly.

The reverse sequence, without comma, is:

I would probably want to kick her ass if I knew someone like Bella Swan now.

That much, like I said, doesn’t seem to trip anyone up. The third conditional is where it starts to get tricky. Here we refer to an event which already did not happen and the consequence which, therefore, was not an issue.

If I had gone to school with Bella Swan, we probably would not have bothered each other.

The independent clause, which communicates the event which determines the consequence—i.e., the part before the comma—uses the past perfect tense. This part is tricky enough: the grammar is subject + “had” + verb participle. Now you might be asking me, “what the fuck is a verb participle and how am I supposed to remember that?” Chances are, you use participles all the time. For any event which has occurred up to now or had occurred already at a certain point in time, you use the participle. For most verbs in English, the participle is the same as the simple past tense, but there are some irregular verbs which use separate participles. Some examples include:

get—got—gotten (American only)

And so on. The participle is used in all perfect tenses, which are used for both clauses of a third conditional statement.

The independent clause uses the past perfect tense, and communicates an event which did not happen. I’ve already finished high school, and Bella Swan was nowhere in it. This is a foregone conclusion.

The dependent clause—the consequence of the event which did not happen—uses “would” with the present perfect tense. It is for this part of the sentence, and ONLY this part of the sentence, where we use would have. The theoretical result of conditions which did not apply was that “we would not have bothered each other.” “Would not,” followed by present perfect.

To switch the clauses around, omit the comma:

Bella and I probably would not have bothered each other if we had gone to school together.

The error which I see increasingly often is to use “would have” for both clauses in the third conditional. With this usage, the sentence would be:

If I would have gone to school with Bella Swan, we probably would not have bothered each other.

This is a mistake. In some other languages, they use the equivalent of “would have” for both parts of the sentence, but that is not how we construct the sentence in English. If you want to talk about how you “would have gone to school” with someone, that needs to be expressed in another sentence as the consequence of another event. When it’s an event in its own right, there is no “would.”

Now let’s try all three conditionals, in reverse order:

(3) If I’d gone to high school with someone like Bella Swan, we probably would not have bothered each other, but (2) if I knew her today, I’d want to kick her ass, and furthermore, (1) if I have to read any more prose with her as the narrator, I will frighten the neighbors with my drunken antics.