if I were / if I had been

glamour117

New Member
HINDI
Please look at the following sentences.

Last week, I saw a newspaper ad offering a limited sale on 50 new computers at a discount price.

I would have bought it if I were rich

or

I would have bought it if I had been rich.

or

I would buy it if i were rich.

which one is correct ?
 
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  • Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I don't think the first one is correct, Glamour - the tense sequencing is wrong, to my ear.

    The second and third mean different things.

    I would have bought it if I had been rich. means you didn't buy it, the chance to buy it has probably gone, and you are not a rich person.

    I would buy it if I were rich. means you haven't bought it, the chance to buy it is still open, and you are not a rich person.
     

    thoroughlyconfused

    Member
    English - Canada
    I don't think the first one is correct, Glamour - the tense sequencing is wrong, to my ear.
    Though "incorrect", I think you'd hear/see such things quite often. The problem is in the construction of the subjunctive. For present, one uses the so-called past subjunctive (e.g., "If I were rich, I would buy it."). For the past, one uses the so-called pluperfect subjunctive ("If I had been rich, I would have bought it.").

    This means that all the past tenses get turned into the pluperfect subjunctive, eliminating any distinction between simple past and perfect. "If I had been rich, ..." says nothing about whether or not I am now rich, but there's the temptation to infer that I am now rich. It's very tempting to move from the simple past "I was not rich" to the past subjunctive "If I were rich, ..." (which properly is used for the present) from which no one would make such an inference.

    In some sense, especially for events in the recent past, it's quite awkward to introduce this ambiguity: "Yesterday, if I had been rich, I would have bought it.". Almost self-evidently, my non-richness is a fact of an extended present, not something of the distant past. The prescriptively incorrect "Yesterday, if I were rich, I would have bought it." communicates rather clearly that I haven't since won the lottery.

    The closer in the past, the greater the temptation. The transition from "were" to "had been" (for something which isn't well-localized in time, like my non-richness) is really abrupt. I have to admit that there are circumstances in which I'd probably say "If I were rich, I would have bought it." (for example, five minutes after said buying opportunity).
     

    thoroughlyconfused

    Member
    English - Canada
    Hope that helps!
    Kind of. The problem with "If I were rich, I would have bought it." is not so much that one can't mix tenses, but that in this case the dependency is in the past -- "If I had been rich at that time, I would have bought it at that same time.". Strictly speaking, my richness (or lack thereof) at the present moment doesn't come into play at all.

    However, I (half-heartedly) defend the construct, especially in the case in which the time is rather recent -- on the grounds that richness isn't so well-localized temporally. In any case, both versions cause me pause, "were" since it's evidently present (and incorrect) and "had been" since it has an unwanted connotation.
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    The thread that audio mentioned to was something of a, let's say, "learning experience" for me...

    But I do find the BBC link that Cagey gave in that thread extremely helpful. In terms of glamour's "I would have bought it if I were rich", the most relevant part is this:
    The other possibility, though I think this is less common, is when we have a type 2 conditional in the if-clause (if + past simple) followed by a type 3 conditional (would've + past participle) in the main clause.

    With this combination, we are describing ongoing circumstances in relation to a previous past event. Consider these examples:

    If you weren't such a poor dancer, you would've got a job in the chorus line in that musical.
    If you weren't so blind to his faults, you would've realised that he was out to swindle you.
    I would think that last week (glamour's time frame) is close enough to the present for the speaker's lack of wealth to be seen as an 'ongoing circumstance'.

    Therefore, I conclude (with some trepidation - TT and I are always disagreeing on conditionals:D) that glamour's first sentence is both natural and grammatical.
     

    thoroughlyconfused

    Member
    English - Canada
    Therefore, I conclude (with some trepidation - TT and I are always disagreeing on conditionals:D) that glamour's first sentence is both natural and grammatical.
    I think my problem is that the sentence in question sounds both idiomatic and kind of incorrect to me; both logical (otherwise the shift from present to past is too abrupt) and illogical (since the tenses don't quite match). In real life, confronted with forming such a sentence, I would probably hesitate, choose one (or possibly both), shrug my shoulders, and move on.

    I know I would want to say "If I were rich, I would have bought it.", but part of me share's TT's ear.
     

    thoroughlyconfused

    Member
    English - Canada
    ... and leave the rest of us struggling gamely on to answer glamour117’s questions...?!
    That's the fun of English, isn't it? :p

    Well, TT certainly correctly distinguished the present (sentence #3) from the past (#1 and #2). There's no doubt that #2 is correct -- it just says nothing about my present richness. #1 poses some problems.

    In the democratic tradition of the English language, things which sound awkward/incorrect to educated, native speakers are problematic (by definition). I'd count TT under "educated, native speakers", so #1 is problematic; it also sounds problematic, if not necessarily wrong, to me. It doesn't make it wrong though. In the same democratic tradition, the solution is to poll experts about its correctness.

    My recommendation would be, in the case of #1:
    • It's fine in spoken language. Say it quickly enough and probably no one will notice. Even if someone does notice, they won't be able to object confidently.
    • In written language, it's best to avoid it. If you really need to mean #1 rather than #2 (namely, that you're still not rich), phrase it differently.

    The BBC link provides evidence that at least some (I don't know about all!) experts think that it's okay. Nonetheless, one should probably avoid sentences which may seem incorrect/half-incorrect/awkward. Sometimes it's hard to provide definitive answers about English.
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    My recommendation would be, in the case of #1:
    • It's fine in spoken language. Say it quickly enough and probably no one will notice. Even if someone does notice, they won't be able to object confidently.
    • In written language, it's best to avoid it. If you really need to mean #1 rather than #2 (namely, that you're still not rich), phrase it differently.
    Interesting, thoroughlyc:) I was burbling unconvincingly about formality vs informality in the thread audio linked to: maybe I wasn't quite as incoherent as I thought.

    I could live with this advice - not least because spoken language is surely more likely than written language to be dealing with 'ongoing circumstances'.
     
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