Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Unreal Past

What is Unreal Past?

Unreal Past is the use of past tenses to talk about hypothetical situations. We use Past Simple, and sometimes Past Continuous, to talk about unlikely or unreal situations in the present and future, and Past Perfect for unlikely or unreal situations in the past.
We use Unreal Past in the following:
  • Unreal or hypothetical conditionals - second, third and mixed
  • The constructions I wish ... and If only ...
  • Expressing a preference with I'd rather, I'd sooner, I'd prefer, I'd just as soon
  • Hypothesising with What if, supposing, imagine
  • After as if and as though when we think the situation is unlikely
  • It's time
  • Being tentative - If ... were to
  • Idiom - If it wasn't for / weren't for / hadn't been for
I've already talked about unreal conditionals here, and have gone into some detail on I wish and If only here, so in this post I'm going to be concentrating on the other uses of Unreal Past. But I do look at two expressions sometimes used with unreal conditionals - were to and if it weren't for.

Conditionals and I wish - A reminder

Exercise 1 - Complete each sentence with one word. Contractions such as he'll and wouldn't count as one word. Not all the conditional sentences deal with unreal situations. This is an informal blog, so where you have the choice between was(n't) and were(n't), you can use either (More on that later).

1.If he so shy, he would have asked her out by now.
2.She would be at work now, if she overslept this morning.
3. my love to Susie if you see her.
4.I wish we never set eyes on him. He's brought us nothing but trouble.
5. you asked me earlier, I might have been able to do something.
6.She would have arrived earlier if she hadn't the bus.
7.They could make a fortune if they their house and moved out of London.
8.If we hadn't booked our holiday, we would go with you to Crete. (7 letters)
9.If you don't hurry, be late for school.
10.It would be a lovely view if it for the gasworks over there.
11. he not so handsome, I'd be loath to pay the ransom.
12.I wish I so bad with money.
13.Wouldn't you like to be somewhere hot right now? - If !
14.She wouldn't be so cross with you if you apologised sooner.
15.If I had known it was your birthday, I would brought you something.
16.She'll be very disappointed if she get this job.
17.I wish you make so much noise just when I'm phoning your granny.
18.If only we had to sell the Rolls. I feel totally bereft.
19.She have had a fit if she'd found out the truth.
20.If going into town, could you give me a lift?

Expressing a preference with I would rather etc

The expressions would rather, would sooner, would just as soon and would prefer are all used to talk about preference. Sometimes it's about a choice between two things (with than in statements and or in questions), sometimes it's just a case of wanting something to happen or not happen. Would rather is by far the most common of these expressions, with would prefer coming second.
  • She'd rather jump off a bridge than go and speak to him.
  • Shall we take the bus, or would you rather walk?
  • She'd sooner buy a flat than rent one.
  • I'd sooner not tell Maisie
  • I'd just as soon not invite him
  • Wouldn't you just as soon stay in tonight?
  • Would you prefer to go by train or take the coach?
  • He'd prefer to keep quiet about the whole affair.
When only the subject is involved, as in the examples above, we use the bare infinitive (1st form), or in the case of prefer, the to-infinitive.
.But when the subject wants someone else to do something, either separately or together with the subject, we use a clause in Unreal Past
  • I'd rather we kept this to ourselves
  • Would you rather I didn't come?
  • She'd sooner we didn't tell Maisie.
  • We'd sooner he was / were there with us.
  • We'd just as soon she didn't come.
  • I'd just as soon you didn't do that.
  • I think they'd prefer it if I weren't / wasn't at the meeting.
  • Wouldn't you prefer it if I told her?
Notice how we use prefer in a slightly different way to the others: subject + would prefer it if + clause in past simple.
We can also use would rather, sooner, soon as + past perfect to talk about things in the past
  • I'd rather you hadn't spoken to him like that
  • I'd sooner she hadn't done that.
  • I'd just as soon you hadn't told him.
With prefer, we use a different construction - would have preferred it if + past perfect.
  • I would have preferred it if she hadn't left like that.
But when talking about the past, I wish + past perfect is more common
  • I wish you hadn't spoken to him like that
  • I wish she hadn't left like that.

Exercise 2 - Decide whether to use a bare infinitive or Unreal Past. Use the verbs in the box in a suitable form to fill the gaps.

go   ·   not stay   ·   take   ·   not go   ·   meet   ·   not make   ·   come   ·   walk
1.We'd sooner you out too late.
2.She'd rather the bus than walk.
3.He'd prefer it if we too much noise.
4.I'd just as soon they tomorrow.
5.We'd sooner to their stupid party.
6.She'd prefer to the cinema.
7.I'd just as soon to the shops; they're quite close, really.
8.He'd rather we at his office than at mine.

Hypothesising with What if, supposing, suppose, imagine

Suppose, supposing and imagine can be used instead of if in real and unreal conditionals, with the same tense forms as if conditionals. Supposing is not used so much in American English.
  • Suppose he moves his queen to there, it'll be checkmate.
    - Like a 1st Conditional
  • Imagine you won the lottery, what would you do?
    - Like a 2nd Conditional
  • Supposing we had played better, we might not have lost the match.
    - Like a 3rd Conditional
  • Suppose you hadn't gone to university, you wouldn't be working here now.
    - Like a Mixed Conditional
We can use what if ...? in a similar way, but the condition and result are expressed in two separate sentences.
  • What if it rains? We'll get soaked.
    - Like a 1st Conditional
  • What if you failed your exam? What would you do?
    - Like a 2nd Conditional
  • What if we had played better? We might not have lost the match.
    - Like a 3rd Conditional
  • What if you hadn't gone to university? You wouldn't be working here now.
    - Like a Mixed Conditional
We can also use imagine, suppose and what if ...? to talk about the hypothetical consequences of an action or situation, where the result part of the conditional is left unsaid.
  1. Imagine she turns up at her ex's party? (What will he say?)
  2. Suppose / supposing he was / were a spy? (What should we do?)
  3. What if they were to be late? (What should we do?)
  4. Imagine you'd never used a computer. (What would life be like?)
Look at the way the verbs are used in those sentences
  1. she turns up - Present simple - real tense use - we think it's quite possible
  2. he was / were - Past simple - Unreal Past - we think it's less likely
  3. they were to be - construction with were to - we think it's even less likely
  4. you'd never used - Past Perfect - unreal situation in the past
Supposing can also be used, along with suppose and what if, but NOT imagine, to introduce suggestions for action:
  • Supposing we go to that new Italian restaurant for lunch.
  • Suppose we go somewhere a bit quieter.
  • What if we skip this part of the lesson?
If we want the suggestion to be more tentative, we can use Unreal Past, and to be even more tentative, we can use were to.
  • What if / suppose / supposing we went somewhere a bit quieter?
  • What if / suppose / supposing we were to go somewhere a bit quieter?
A note on imagine - this often comes after just - just imagine. And it is also often followed by if - imagine if. Sometimes we use both - just imagine if
We'll look at the were to construction in a bit more detail later.

Exercise 3 - Read through the story once ignoring the gaps, then use the verbs in the box in a suitable form to fill the gaps.

offer   ·   cancel   ·   turn   ·   meet   ·   imagine   ·   be (x4)   ·   get
Just (1) if you (2) stranded in a strange city. There (3) a heavy snowfall the night before: the airport (4) closed and all the trains (5) . Supposing you (6) somebody at the station and they (7) you a lift in their car to your home city. Would you accept immediately, or think to yourself, 'What if we (8) stuck in a snowdrift? It's a very real possibility.' And you don't know this person. Suppose they (9) out to be an escaped criminal, only after your money? Or even worse! But let's imagine that it (10) really important for you to get home soon. What would you do?

After as if and as though

As if and as though have the same meaning: that something seems or appears in a certain way.
  • It looks as if she is the boss. (And she probably is)
  • Tom, you look as though you know the answer. (And he probably does)
In the two sentences above, we think think there is a real possibility, so we use real tenses for the second verb. We do this especially with verbs like seem, appear, and verbs of the senses like look, sound, taste and smell. But if we think the comparison is unreal, we can use an unreal past tense.
  • She acts is if she was / were the boss. (but she isn't)
  • Peter, why look as if you knew the answer when you hadn't a clue?
To talk about a past condition with a present result, we can use a perfect tense; present perfect (real) for a probable situation, past perfect (unreal) for a less likely situation:
  • He looks as though he hasn't eaten for days. (And he probably hasn't)
  • He looks as though he hadn't eaten for days. (He probably has eaten, he just looks as if he hadn't)
If we use the first verb is in the past, the second verb is also in the past in both real and unreal situations, so we can only work it out from context.
  • She looked as if she was the boss. (And probably was)
  • She acted as if she was the boss. (And perhaps wasn't)
  • He looked as though he hadn't eaten for days. (Either possible)

Exercise 4 - Fill the gaps with verbs from the box in a suitable form, using real or unreal tenses as appropriate. Use negative contractions, e.g. hasn't, but no others. Where you have a choice between was and were, you can use either.

enjoy   ·   be (x2)   ·   stop   ·   eat   ·   hurt   ·   see   ·   have got   ·   want
1.You look as if you a ghost. Are you alright?
2.It tastes as though it alcohol in it.
3.What a face! You really look as if you yourself.
4.She treats people as if they her servants.
5.It seems as though you right all along.
6.He acts as though he God's gift to women.
7.He's acting as if he to tell us something.
8.She is walking as though she herself.
9.It sounds as if it raining now. Let's go out.
10.First a huge breakfast, and now he's wolfing down his lunch as if he for days.

Unreal Past and the subjunctive.

Advanced EFL books and EFL grammars often introduce the Subjunctive when talking about Unreal Past. The Subjunctive is a set of verb forms known as a 'mood'. The most commonly accepted moods in English are:
  • Indicative - the normal tenses we use most of the time
  • Subjunctive - used very rarely, especially in British English, to 'show a wish, doubt, or anything else contrary to fact' (
  • Imperative - telling people what to do and asking for things: Do this, Don't do that, Give me one of those etc
The Present Subjunctive is not used much in British English, and is considered rather formal. In any case, we are not concerned with it here, as we are talking about the use of unreal past verb forms. If you are interested, I've written about it in some depth here.

The traditional approach

Traditional grammar talks about using the Past Subjunctive for these hypothetical or unreal situations we've been talking about, but there are two problems with this approach:
  1. As you can see from the table below, Past Subjunctive only differs from Past Indicative (normal past tenses) where the 1st and 3rd persons singular of the verb be are involved, when were substitutes for was. So in the majority of cases, there's no real need to talk about a separate Subjunctive.
  2. What's more, the use of the subjunctive were is declining, with was often being preferred, especially in spoken language. Although this process is happening on both sides of the Atlantic, it seems to be more accepted in Britain, where all three Prime Ministerial candidates before the last election apparently used the expression 'If I was your Prime Minister', or something similar, without being considered grammatical ignoramuses.
 To beOther verbs
Past Simple    
he, she, itwaswereworkedworked
we, you, theywerewereworkedworked
Past Continuous    
Iwas beingwere beingwas workingwere working
he, she, itwas beingwere being was workingwere working
we, you, theywere beingwere beingwere workingwere working
All personshad beenhad beenhad workedhad worked

The modern approach

For these reasons, EFL books usually refer to the Unreal Past, which includes both Subjunctive Past and Indicative Past, and usually only refer to the Subjunctive when its form varies from that of the Indicative.
In all the constructions we've looked at so far, we can use the Subjunctive were or the Indicative was. In spoken English, was is more common and were is usually seen as more formal, especially in British English. In American English, were seems to be used rather more often.
But note that:
  • In fixed expressions such as 'If I were you', the Subjunctive is almost idiomatic, and the Indicative was would sound strange here.
    I would leave it well alone if I were you. NOT if I was you
  • If we use Conditional inversion, we must use the Subjunctive, with full negatives, not contractions.
    Were he to offer me a better salary, I would take the job. NOT Was he to ...
    Were she not already spoken for, he would ask her out. NOT Weren't she ...
    Had he not already done it, I would have done it myself. NOT Hadn't he ...
  • In formal writing, for example Academic writing, you might be expected to use the Subjunctive were
In all the constructions we've looked at so far, we can use the Indicative was or the Subjunctive were. Here's some practice with the Subjunctive:

Exercise 5 - Enter were or weren't plus one of the words or expressions from the box.

here   ·   in my shoes   ·   up to me   ·   a child   ·   more friendly   ·   the Queen of Sheba   ·   staying   ·   so lazy   ·   in Rio   ·   cast away
1.I'd go for the blue one if it .
2.If he , he might have passed his exam.
3.I wish I longer, but I have to go back to London.
4.Look at these samba bands. If only I right now.
5.I think my ex would probably rather I when she comes to visit you.
6.I'd prefer it if she towards me, but there it is.
7.Just imagine if he on a desert island. He'd never cope by himself.
8.Supposing he , what do you think he would do?
9.She acts as if she herself.
10.He talks to me as if I . Me! His mother!
If you are interested in the debate about the use of was instead of were, I've written a post here on the subject.

It's time

This construction is often included in Unreal Past, but it's a little different from the others. It is not so much about a hypothetical situation as to what we think should happen.
Note how we use about and high.
  • It's time (for me) to leave. (I should leave now, but perhaps there's no great rush)
  • It's about time I left / was leaving (I should leave now)
  • It's time I left /was leaving. (I should leave this minute)
  • It's high time I left /was leaving. (I really should have left five minutes ago)
Note that we only use this expression with the Indicative Past, not the Subjunctive Past.
  • It's time I was thinking of going.
  • It's time I were thinking of going.

Exercise 6 - Rewrite the sentences, starting with 'It's'. Each sentence should include the word time and any words given in brackets. Don't add any punctuation.

1.The children should be in bed. (high)
2.Shouldn't we be going soon?
3.You should get a haircut soon. (about)
4.She should be financially independent by now. (earning herself a living)
5.They should be here, shouldn't they?
6.We should start thinking about our holidays.(to)
7.We should have the birthday cake now.(for)
8.I should be getting ready to go soon.(thinking about)

Were to

The use of were to instead of a standard past tense suggests that the event is even less likely, or the consequences of the event would be rather bad. We can use it in Second, Third and Mixed Conditionals, and after Suppose / supposing, imagine and What if ...?
  • Second Conditional
  • If they offered her the job, she would take it like a shot.
  • If they were to offer her the job, she would take it like a shot.
  • Third Conditional
  • If the fire had destroyed the school, we would have had nowhere to study.
  • If the fire were to have destroyed the school, we would have had nowhere to study.
  • And here's a Mixed Conditional in action, from
  • 'If Liverpool weren't to have increased their offer and Andy had stayed at Newcastle United, what kind of picture would we be facing now?'
  • After suppose / supposing / imagine / what if ...?
  • Supposing you lost / were to lose your job?
  • Imagine you were / were to be in a reality TV programme.
  • What if you had lost / were to have lost your driving licence?
The were to construction is often thought of as a type of Subjunctive, but was is sometimes used here instead of were.
According to GrammarGirl, who is pretty strict on the use of the Subjunctive were in unreal conditionals, and who definitely would not have approved of 'If I was prime minister', we can use the Indicative was to when the situation is probable or real, giving this example:
  • If Bill was to come over for coffee (as he does every Sunday), we would talk about football.

Exercise 7 - Fill each gap with were to and one of the verbs in the box in a suitable form.

discover   ·   be   ·   close   ·   introduce   ·   turn up   ·   go   ·   offer   ·   break
1.If we you an extra discount, what could you give us in exchange?
2.Suppose he out of the blue?
3.If the river its banks in the floods, a lot of people would have been affected.
4.What if there an election tomorrow. How would you vote?
5.Imagine if they the playground last year as they threatened.
6.God knows what she would do if she he has been unfaithful.
7.If I the bus drivers on strike, the roads would have been chaos.
8.Supposing they a total smoking ban tomorrow!

If it wasn't for / weren't for / hadn't been for

This is an idiom suggesting that a situation would have been different without someone or something or, that somebody/something stopped somebody/something from happening. It is followed by a noun, a noun phrase, a pronoun or a gerund.
As usual with Unreal Past, Past Simple - either Indicative was (informal) or Subjunctive were) (formal) - is used for present situations, and Past Perfect for past situations. The result clause follows the normal Conditional pattern.
  • Second Conditional
  • If it wasn't for the nights, I think that I could make it. Abba
  • I'd hardly get any exercise if it weren't for walking the dog.
  • If it wasn't for Hedy Lamarr, we wouldn't have Wi-Fi. Article in the The Guardian
  • Third Conditional
  • If it hadn't been for the awful weather, we would have had a good time.
  • I'd never have succeeded if it hadn't been for you.
  • Mixed Conditional
  • If it weren't for all her help, we'd never have managed.
  • We would have got here sooner if it wasn't for these awful traffic jams.

Exercise 8 - Complete each sentence with one word. Contractions such as didn't count as one word. In a couple of cases you are given the number of letters the word has.

1.I'd come and join you if it wasn't for all work I have to do. (4 letters)
2.If it been for Auntie Maisie, we would never have known he'd gone abroad.
3.If it weren't for the that I have to resit my exam, I could have been having a nice relaxed summer.
4.If it wasn't for the awful they play, this could be quite a nice café.
5.Had it been for his father's insistence, he would never have chosen the law as a career.
6.We'd never have been able to it if it hadn't been for your mother's generosity. (6 letters)
7. it not for his wealth and title, doors might not have opened for him so quickly.
8.He would quite a good lawyer if it wasn't for his short temper. (4 letters)

Putting it all together

Exercise 9 - Complete each sentence with one word. Negative contractions such as didn't count as one word. If there's a choice between was and were, you can use either.

1.I'd rather you to see us in the afternoon. We'll be out in the morning.
2.If only you been so rude to her.
3.I just wish you occasionally help me with the housework.
4.We would never have met if I decided to go for a coffee that day.
5.Supposing you prime minister, what's the first thing you would you do?
6.If only we afford a new car; this one's falling to pieces.
7.I'd prefer if you didn't smoke in my car, if you don't mind.
8.Imagine we in a spaceship right now.
9.If I had gone to bed a bit earlier last night, I be feeling so tired now.
10.It's time you were in bed, young man. It's long past your bedtime.
11.She would have more friends she was nicer to people.
12.If I was do the washing up, would you clear the table.
13.We'd never have managed if it hadn't been your help.
14.He acts as if he the owner, but he's only a waiter.
15.Don't you think it's time you some homework?
16.It sounds as though there a party next door.
17.He looked as though he had out on the town all night.
18.Wouldn't you rather the washing up tomorrow?
19.Ah well, I think it's time bed. Good night.
20.What if you up one morning to find you had been turned into an enormous insect?

Exercise 10 - Complete the second sentence so it has the same meaning as the first one, using the word given. Don't change the form of the word given. Use between three and five words, including the word given. Use contractions for would and negatives. They count as one word.

1.To hear him talk you'd think he owned the place, wouldn't you?
He talks the place, doesn't he?
2.What would you do if you couldn't drive for some reason
Suppose you for some reason?
3.Don't you want me to go and see him?
Are you saying go and see him?
4.I really regret saying that to him yesterday.
that to him yesterday.
5.There's a small chance it isn't true.
6.I would like him to take better care of himself.
I better care of himself.

Postscript - Distancing requests and suggestions with past forms

As well as Unreal Past, there are also other times when we use past tenses with a present or future meaning:

Using past indicative tenses

We can use past tenses to make requests and suggestions less direct. The use of the Past Continuous makes it even less direct:
  • I was wondering if
  • I thought you
  • Were you wanting to watch the football, by any chance?
  • We were hoping

Using modals

The 'past' forms of the modal verbs can, will, shall and may, (could, would, should and might), are usually used with a present or future meaning. They are less direct, and are often used for requests and suggestions:
  • Could you tell me the way to the station?
  • Would you follow me please?
  • She should be here at any moment.
  • It might rain this afternoon.
We sometimes use a Second Conditional structure to make a request with mind more polite.
  • Do you mind if I open a window?
  • Would you mind if I opened a window?



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