<If somebody were to do> for the past time

grammar-in-use

Senior Member
Chinese
Hello everyone,

Source: China paints a target on Hong Kong, but abandons one for growth

Were China to declare a low full-year target, that might have been seen as an admission of weakness. Were China to declare a high target for the second half, that might have been unrealistic given the global turmoil. In the end, it abandoned the target altogether, perhaps to be resumed next year.

Background: This article was written on May 22, 2020, when China would, as a general rule, have declared its full-year GDP growth target but didn't amid the COVID-19 turmoil.
Questions:
Why does the author mix "were to do" with "might have been" as above? Is the "were to declare" here used for the past time or the future?

Thanks a lot in advance!
 
  • Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    "China" is a third person singular noun, so we know that "were" has to be the past subjunctive, which means it refers to the a hypothetical situation in the present or future, or that is timeless.

    I cannot see either use of "were" as being timeless; from the context you have given they appear to refer to the present or the very near future. However, I really cannot think why the writer uses "might have been seen" instead of "might be seen". The second sentence seems wrong to me, since "unrealistic" clearly refers to the high target, yet I cannot see how the antecedent of "that" can be "a high target"; it is surely "China declaring a high target".

    The quality of writing in The Economist is usually excellent, so quite frankly I am rather puzzled here.
     

    dojibear

    Senior Member
    English - Northeast US
    Both "were China to" are theoretical things that China could have done but didn't do.
    In both cases the author tells us what would have resulted (in his mind) from that action which didn't happen.

    So the first 2 sentences are entirely theoretical things which did not happen, that the writer imagines.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Hello everyone,

    Source: China paints a target on Hong Kong, but abandons one for growth

    Were China to declare a low full-year target, that might have been seen as an admission of weakness. Were China to declare a high target for the second half, that might have been unrealistic given the global turmoil. In the end, it abandoned the target altogether, perhaps to be resumed next year.

    Background: This article was written on May 22, 2020, when China would, as a general rule, have declared its full-year GDP growth target but didn't amid the COVID-19 turmoil.
    Questions:
    Why does the author mix "were to do" with "might have been" as above? Is the "were to declare" here used for the past time or the future?

    Thanks a lot in advance!
    It's a mistake, Grammar-in-use. Well spotted!

    The II/III mixed conditional is applied to cases where an ongoing condition has an effect on a past event - Were you not blind, you might have understood what happened.

    This writer is imagining the decision-makers in the past, looking into what was then the future - Were they to declare a low full-year target, that might be seen as an admission of weakness is what they mean, a II conditional.

    Of course, the writer might have preferred the simple III conditional, Had they declared a low full-year target, that might have been seen as an admission of weakness. This would be unexceptionable, but would have removed the feeling that he or she was trying to sit in the decision-makers' shoes and look into what was then the future.

    The editor should have corrected this. There are other tiny signs in this interesting article of grammatical insecurity in the writer.
     
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    grammar-in-use

    Senior Member
    Chinese
    Thank you so much to Uncle Jack, Dojibear and Thomas! All of your replies are very helpful to me.
    How do you read "Were China to declare..." as referring to something in the past? Surely it would have to be "Had China declared..." or "Were China to have declared...".
    Yeah, that's exactly what puzzled me in the first place.

    This writer is imagining the decision-makers in the past, looking into what was then the future
    That's a very interesting perspective on the use of "were to declare" here. So, the author seems to have wrongly mixed the type II conditional with the type III one, right?
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    [...]
    That's a very interesting perspective on the use of "were to declare" here. So, the author seems to have wrongly mixed the type II conditional with the type III one, right?
    Not really. I hope I didn't imply that. I may have misunderstood your question, of course.

    He used the mixed II/III which was inappropriate, and therefore, in your words, wrong.

    The II conditional would have served his purpose well.

    The III conditional would have been satisfactory, but would have altered the perspective of the comment: he would no longer have been envisaging the then-future, from the position in the past when they were making the decision.
     

    grammar-in-use

    Senior Member
    Chinese
    Not really. I hope I didn't imply that. I may have misunderstood your question, of course.

    He used the mixed II/III which was inappropriate, and therefore, in your words, wrong.

    The II conditional would have served his purpose well.

    The III conditional would have been satisfactory, but would have altered the perspective of the comment: he would no longer have been envisaging the then-future, from the position in the past when they were making the decision.
    Oh I see. Thank you. Your explanation and perspective is really helpful to me in understanding why the author wrote it the way he did.
     

    Steven David

    Senior Member
    Standard General American English USA
    Hello everyone,

    Source: China paints a target on Hong Kong, but abandons one for growth

    Were China to declare a low full-year target, that might have been seen as an admission of weakness. Were China to declare a high target for the second half, that might have been unrealistic given the global turmoil. In the end, it abandoned the target altogether, perhaps to be resumed next year.

    Background: This article was written on May 22, 2020, when China would, as a general rule, have declared its full-year GDP growth target but didn't amid the COVID-19 turmoil.
    Questions:
    Why does the author mix "were to do" with "might have been" as above? Is the "were to declare" here used for the past time or the future?

    Thanks a lot in advance!

    I am not entirely sure. However, the two clauses don't go together.

    The writer could be functioning with the idea that "were X to do" can reference past time. But it cannot. "Were X to do something" references present time going into the future.
     
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    Steven David

    Senior Member
    Standard General American English USA
    Yeah, that's also what I've been taught. So, I was really puzzled about why the writer used it for the past time.
    The writer made a mistake. And I'm definitely not giving him the benefit of the doubt by calling it a performance error. This is a competency error.

    The idea of using "were" in second conditional sentences, or in remote hypothetical sentences referencing present time, confuses native speakers of English sometimes. Writing gives us enough time to think about what we are really putting on paper. And then an editor didn't even catch this.

    My guess is that, somewhere along the line, he read or heard that "were" is the "past subjunctive" and took that to mean past time. That's the wrong way to talk about it. Or he was just trying to show how "educated" he is by dropping if and inverting the subject and verb. But since he really doesn't understand how this works, he wrote the sentence the wrong way. This use of were does not occur very frequently.

    He did not use "were" correctly in these sentences.

    Native speakers, generally, learn to use the entirety of their language naturally. It's just that when pedantic grammar writers and teachers try to teach people things they already know, problems arise.
     
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    grammar-in-use

    Senior Member
    Chinese
    My guess is that somewhere along the line, he read or heard that "were" is the "past subjunctive" and took that to mean past time.
    This remark of your reminds me of an observation that "were" can sometimes be used to talk about the past hypothetical situation. For example,
    (1). If we were soldiers, we wouldn’t have done it like that.
    (2). If we had been soldiers, we wouldn’t have done it like that.

    So, now arise my questions: Is the "were" in (1) used to refer to the past situation? If so (or not), what's the difference between (1) and (2)?
     

    Steven David

    Senior Member
    Standard General American English USA
    This remark of your reminds me of an observation that "were" can sometimes be used to talk about the past hypothetical situation. For example,
    (1). If we were soldiers, we wouldn’t have done it like that.
    (2). If we had been soldiers, we wouldn’t have done it like that.

    So, now arise my questions: Is the "were" in (1) used to refer to the past situation? If so (or not), what's the difference between (1) and (2)?

    No, the were in 1) is not used to refer to the past situation. Sentence 1) is a mixed conditional. The first clause references all time, and the second clause references the past.

    If we were soldiers ... <

    This references a never changing fact. This is true for all time. The speaker knows that they are not soldiers. This is why this clause works with the result clause.

    To say, in that sentence, if we had been soldiers, would mean that it was possible, somehow, for them to have been soldiers in the past, but they were not. That is not what the speaker means to say, and it does not fit with the speaker's knowledge of what the facts are.

    In other words, a hypothetical remote condition referencing present time is possible to use even when the result clause is perfective, referencing the past, as long as the condition clause represents a fact that is true, always has been true, and always will be true.

    Here's another example.

    If I were you, I wouldn't have done that.

    But this?

    If I had been you, I wouldn't have done that.

    No, this is not possible. There's no way for "me to be you" in the past, now, or in the future.

    The only way for a sentence like that to be possible is in some strange science fiction movie in which it is possible for people to change who they are and become someone else. And then they would also be able to reimagine a past situation in which they speak of being someone else.

    o_O :eek: :rolleyes: :confused: :cool:

    If we had been soldiers ... <

    We are soldiers now, but we were not soldiers back then. Or it means it was possible for us to be soldiers, but we were not.

    Automatic inference tells me that this is highly improbable. And that's why a speaker would say the first sentence, not the second one.

    The automatic inference has to do with what is usual. People who serve in the military usually do so during one time frame in their lives. Explaining this automatic inference further would require more thought. However, I will refrain from doing so as there seems not to be any practical value in this.
     
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    grammar-in-use

    Senior Member
    Chinese
    No, the were in 1) is not used to refer to the past situation. Sentence 1) is a mixed conditional. The first clause references all time, and the second clause references the past.

    If we were soldiers ... <

    This references a never changing fact. This is true for all time. The speaker knows that they are not soldiers. This is why this clause works with the result clause.

    To say, in that sentence, if we had been soldiers, would mean that it was possible, somehow, for them to have been soldiers in the past, but they were not. That is not what the speaker means to say, and it does not fit with the speaker's knowledge of what the facts are.

    In other words, a hypothetical remote condition referencing present time is possible to use even when the result clause is perfective, referencing the past, as long as the condition clause represents a fact that is true, always has been true, and always will be true.

    Here's another example.

    If I were you, I wouldn't have done that.

    But this?

    If I had been you, I wouldn't have done that.

    No, this is not possible. There's no way for "me to be you" in the past, now, or in the future.

    The only way for a sentence like that to be possible is in some strange science fiction movie in which it is possible for people to change who they are and become someone else. And then they would also be able to reimagine a past situation in which they speak of being someone else.

    o_O :eek: :rolleyes: :confused: :cool:

    If we had been soldiers ... <

    We are soldiers now, but we were not soldiers back then. Or it means it was possible for us to be soldiers, but we were not.

    Automatic inference tells me that this is highly improbable. And that's why a speaker would say the first sentence, not the second one.

    The automatic inference has to do with what is usual. People who serve in the military usually do so during one time frame in their lives. Explaining this automatic inference further would require more thought. However, I will refrain from doing so as there seems not to be any practical value in this.
    Yes, crystal clear! :D :thumbsup: Thank you so much!
     
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