If that <were> true the murderer must have dropped some part of his dress,

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thetazuo

Senior Member
Chinese - China
I cudgelled my brains to find some possible explanation. And then the incident of the gray cloth seen by young McCarthy. If that were true the murderer must have dropped some part of his dress, presumably his overcoat, in his flight, and must have had the hardihood to return and to carry it away at the instant when the son was kneeling with his back turned not a dozen paces off.

The Boscombe Valley Mystery, short story

Hi. The context is that Holmes and Watson were going to investigate a murder case. Before the investigation, they had read a young man’s account of the matter; the young man, young McCarthy, was suspected of murder his father, the victim in this case. And the excerpt is part of Watson’s thinking about the murder case based on the young man’s account.

The young man claimed that he had seen a gray coat lying on the ground at the scene of the crime. But it was not confirmed by either Holmes or Watson. So why did Watson use “were” here? Shouldn’t he say “was”? The truth was unknown by the time Watson said the sentences.

Is it an error or do I misunderstand something?
Thank you.
 
  • Edinburgher

    Senior Member
    German/English bilingual
    He is speculating, and although the truth was unknown, he is approaching the matter on the basis of the scant evidence actually available evidence only, which suggests that he young man is probably lying.

    Normally we would say "if it were true" when we know it to be false, and we'd say "if it was true" when we think it is probably true, and what's happening here is that "if it were" is used also in the case where he thinks it is probably false, but is speaking about a hypothesis that in his opinion is unlikely.
     

    entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    It does rather sound to me that Holmes Watson is doubting that it is true, but I don't know exactly how people a hundred years ago used this 'were'.

    edited: it's Watson
     
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    Edinburgher

    Senior Member
    German/English bilingual
    why isn’t “had been” used in the sentence?
    He is talking about the truth of the young man's claim. It doesn't make sense to say that something "has been true". A claim about a fact is either true forever or false forever; its truth does not change. Come to think of it, therefore "if it was true" wouldn't work in this context either, and would instead have been "if it is true".
     

    JulianStuart

    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    I can't find the thread(s) but I recall this being categorized as a "detective speculation" where competitive hypotheticals are discussed and the use of "were" made sense. (Never studied numbered conditionals so I can;t help with a umber).
     

    thetazuo

    Senior Member
    Chinese - China
    It's what Thomas Tompion has called the detective's conditional, in numerous threads all started by you, thetazuo, for example:
    Even if + would have
    Even if he <had> found some secret way out
    Thank you. I thought JS was referring to something else. But I don’t think the example in the op is detective’s conditional, even if “was” is used instead of “were”, because the main clause is purely guesswork, which can’t be used as something we can make any inference from about whether the statement on the if m clause is true or false.
     

    JulianStuart

    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    Thank you. I thought JS was referring to something else. But I don’t think the example in the op is detective’s conditional, even if “was” is used instead of “were”, because the main clause is purely guesswork, which can’t be used as something we can make any inference from about whether the statement on the if m clause is true or false.
    It's because the speaker doesn't know, that TT calls it a conditional and I called it "speculation" - comparing different possibilities that can not yet be known for true/false or hypothetical/real.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    What I call the detective's conditional usually employs an eventive simple past in the if-clause:

    If the robber jumped out of the window, there would be footprints in the flowerbed - let's go to see if there are footprints in the flowerbed.

    It seemed to me a detective might reason in this way, rather than using the standard III conditional - If the robber had jumped out of the window, there would have been footprints in the flowerbed. The III conditional is closed (we know the robber did not jump out of the window); the detective's conditional is open (we don't know whether or not the robber jumped out of the window). The detective subsequently goes to the flowerbed for evidence.
     
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    thetazuo

    Senior Member
    Chinese - China
    Thank you all for the response.
    What I call the detective's conditional uses an eventive simple past in the if-clause:

    If the robber jumped out of the window, there would be footprints in the flowerbed - let's go to see if there are footprints in the flowerbed.

    It seemed to me a detective might reason in this way, rather than using the standard III conditional - If the robber had jumped out of the window, there would have been footprints in the flowerbed. The III conditional is closed (we know the robber did not jump out of the window); the detective's conditional is open (we don't know whether or not the robber jumped out of the window). The detective subsequently goes to the flowerbed for evidence.
    Yes, I know this. But how is this related to this op example? Is the op example a detective’s conditional? I think not. Watson didn’t have any evidence so everything he was thinking of regarding the gray cloth is purely guesswork. And it seems “must have done” can’t be used in a detective’s conditional.
    Does this make sense?
     

    manfy

    Senior Member
    German - Austria
    Watson didn’t have any evidence so everything he was thinking of regarding the gray cloth is purely guesswork. And it seems “must have done” can’t be used in a detective’s conditional.
    Does this make sense?
    No.
    Holmes doesn't 'just guess' and therefore also Watson doesn't just guess.
    He's drawing logical conclusions based on a hypothetical premise:
    If it were true (what the boy wrote) the murderer must have dropped some part of his dress, presumably his overcoat, in his flight, and must have had the hardihood to return and to carry it away at the instant when the son was kneeling with his back turned not a dozen paces off.

    Based on the premise that young McCarthy did see the gray cloth lying there on the ground, it is logical to infer that the murderer must have dropped it in his flight and since Watson knows that it was not there when the police arrived, it is also logical to infer that the murderer must have come back to collect it. However, if so, the murderer could have done that only in that instant when the boy was kneeling with his back turned, which happened presumably only for a short moment - a scenario taht is possible but quite unlikely - and therefore Watson speculates that the boy's account was not completely truthful (Watson is not actually saying the last bit but it is implied).
    There's no guesswork involved, all is based on pure logic.
     

    thetazuo

    Senior Member
    Chinese - China
    There's no guesswork involved, all is based on pure logic.
    Thank you, manfy. Yes, I’m wrong. It’s pure logic. But the logic must be based on evidence. I’d say it should be the result of a process of logical deduction based on some sort of evidence. Can the account of the young boy be evidence?
    More importantly, for the idea of the detective’s conditional to work, I think it would make more sense to use “was” in if-clause since “if ... was” is open while “if ... were” is closed and in a detective’s conditional, the if-clause should be open.
     

    manfy

    Senior Member
    German - Austria
    Can the account of the young boy be evidence?
    Yes of course, it is evidence; however, since it is a statement made by a person, we can't know whether it is factually correct. In best case it's 100% true, in worst case all of it is a lie.
    That's why Watson tries to find out the credibility of the statement by setting the hypothetical premis to "His statement is truthful". And by using this detective's conditional he's coming to the conclusion that the statement is potentially true but unlikely.

    If I were to write that sentence I'd be inclined to use present tense, as per Edinburgher's reasoning in post #5: if it was true in the past it also will be true now. Ergo, "If it is true (what he wrote)..."
    However, if I have my doubts from the onset of that reasoning in the detective's conditional, I'd actually use subjunctive. (If it were true (what he wrote)...)
     

    thetazuo

    Senior Member
    Chinese - China
    Thank you again.
    That's why Watson tries to find out the credibility of the statement by setting the hypothetical premis to "His statement is truthful". And by using this detective's conditional he's coming to the conclusion that the statement is potentially true but unlikely.
    Sorry, I mildly disagree, but detective’s conditionals don’t work this way, do they?
    I think this would be a valid detective’s conditional (but it would require a slightly different context):
    If the young boy told the truth, the murderer would have dropped his overcoat there. (And that’s exactly what we have found there so the boy might have told the truth; or we haven’t found the overcoat so we can argue that the boy was lying).
    However, if so, the murderer could have done that only in that instant when the boy was kneeling with his back turned, which happened presumably only for a short moment - a scenario taht is possible but quite unlikely - and therefore Watson speculates that the boy's account was not completely truthful (Watson is not actually saying the last bit but it is implied).
    But the original example doesn’t say Watson and Holmes have already had any evidence as to the overcoat. The underlined part is just a speculation rather than evidence, so I don’t quite think you can use this to argue that the state that in the if clause is false.

    PS: I’m not sure if we can use subjunctive “were” in the if clause in a detective’s conditional. To me, we probably can’t.
     

    RM1(SS)

    Senior Member
    English - US (Midwest)
    I think y'all are putting way too much effort into this. I agree with Rover:
    I imagine that when Arthur Conan Doyle wrote this 128 years ago, it was second nature for him to write 'were' in an 'if' clause.

    I don't think he'd even have considered writing 'was'.
    I would also use were, not was.
     

    manfy

    Senior Member
    German - Austria
    PS: I’m not sure if we can use subjunctive “were” in the if clause in a detective’s conditional. To me, we probably can’t.
    I would say, yes we can.
    If I understand TT correctly in post #15, the unique characteristic of a detective's conditional is that the if-clause does not express a closed condition and that the other clause uses tenses and moods as needed. Normally, for a detective the crime lies in the past, so you'd usually see simple past in the if-clause.
    In our case that's not necessary because we are speculating whether something is true (even though the statement in question may have been uttered in the past).

    Now, here it gets tricky - and that's a bit of a flaw in the open/closed-concept of conditionals:
    The second conditional "If I were rich, I'd buy an expensive car" is often seen as a closed conditional because it expresses that you are not rich. So people think of type II conditional as closed conditional in general, which is not true!
    If you say "If I won the lottery tomorrow, I'd buy an expensive car" then this is an open conditional because the future is not yet written; it's just a doubtful open condition and that's why the speaker uses type II.
    An overly optimistic speaker would use type I, "If I win tomorrow, I will buy..."

    So in extension we can say that in a doubtful detective's conditional :p, the detective would say "If it were true what the boy said, the murderer must have/would have..."
    I know it's a stretch if you want to put that into a simple concise rule, but the language logic or the logic of the thought process makes sense.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    [...]
    If that were true the murderer must have dropped some part of his dress, presumably his overcoat, in his flight, and must have had the hardihood to return and to carry it away at the instant when the son was kneeling with his back turned not a dozen paces off.
    I don't really see the puzzle.

    This is clearly an open conditional; Watson doubts whether the story is true and the subjunctive emphasises his uncertainty.

    These days most writers would use 'were', just as at Conan Doyle's time.
     

    thetazuo

    Senior Member
    Chinese - China
    Thank you all.
    This is clearly an open conditional; Watson doubts whether the story is true and the subjunctive emphasises his uncertainty.
    OK. The subjunctive expressing an open past possibility is a bit hard for me to understand. So do you think “was” also works in the if clause? Wouldn’t “was” be more open than “were”?
     

    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    I don't really see the puzzle.

    This is clearly an open conditional; Watson doubts whether the story is true and the subjunctive emphasises his uncertainty.

    These days most writers would use 'were', just as at Conan Doyle's time.
    I don't think Watson is casting doubt on James McCarthy's story, but was trying to reason it through. He had previously been inclined to disbelieve it (or at least, to think that James McCarthy was the murderer), but Holmes had impressed upon him that he (Holmes) thought McCarthy was innocent and that his story was entirely true.

    It is true that Watson is hypothesising, which makes "were" possible, even in modern English, but I read the sentence with the emphasis falling on "that", and I would certainly use "was" rather than "were".
    I imagine that when Arthur Conan Doyle wrote this 128 years ago, it was second nature for him to write 'were' in an 'if' clause.

    I don't think he'd even have considered writing 'was'.
    I agree with this entirely, and I think exactly the same point has been made before in this forum. Conan Doyle's English was very much of the nineteenth century.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I would insist on the subjunctive in cases only where we were faced with an impossible condition, like if I were you.

    I was amused to see that in other forums where Thetazuo, I suspect, has asked this question, members have often said that were is incorrect. I find that view indefensible.
     
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    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    Thank you all.
    So can we used “would have”s instead of “must have”s in the op example?
    No, I don't think so. Sentences of the form "If this is true then that would happen" (ignore the tenses for the time being) are fine when "this" is a logical cause of "that". However, what we have here is that "this" is a logical effect of "that"; the murderer having dropped some part of his dress is what caused McCarthy to see the grey cloth on the ground, rather than McCarthy seeing the grey cloth being the cause of the murderer having dropped it.

    This is not an ordinary conditional sentence. Watson is hypothesising, trying to reason through McCarthy's statement, working out what could have caused McCarthy to see and hear the things he claimed to have done.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Thank you all.
    So can we used “would have”s instead of “must have”s in the op example?
    I disagree with Uncle Jack here.

    Where we have an open conditional sentence like this, you can happily use 'would have' and 'must have, just as you can in most other open conditionals where the if-clause is in the simple past or the past subjunctive.

    I agree with Entangled Bank.
     

    JJXR

    Senior Member
    Russian
    If the robber jumped out of the window, there would be footprints in the flowerbed - let's go to see if there are footprints in the flowerbed.
    Can the quoted sentence be said if the detective has already been near the flowerbed and seen no footprints in it? For example, in the following context:

    Detective #1 to detective #2: "I think the robber jumped out of the window."

    Detective #2 to detective #1: "If, as you say, he jumped out of the window, there would be footprints in the flowerbed."


    Detective #1 understands from what detective #2 has just said that since there are no footprints in the flowerbed, the robber didn't jump out of the window.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Can the quoted sentence be said if the detective has already been near the flowerbed and seen no footprints in it? For example, in the following context:

    Detective #1 to detective #2: "I think the robber jumped out of the window."

    Detective #2 to detective #1: "If, as you say, he jumped out of the window, there would be footprints in the flowerbed."


    Detective #1 understands from what detective #2 has just said that since there are no footprints in the flowerbed, the robber didn't jump out of the window.
    The III conditional is made for such occasions.

    Detective 2 knows that there are no footprints in the flowerbed, so the condition is closed and she'd say

    'If he had jumped out of the window, there would have been footprints in the flowerbed'.
     

    thetazuo

    Senior Member
    Chinese - China
    Hi. JJ and TT.
    The III conditional is made for such occasions.

    Detective 2 knows that there are no footprints in the flowerbed, so the condition is closed and she'd say

    'If he had jumped out of the window, there would have been footprints in the flowerbed'.
    Shouldn’t detective 2 say “If he had jumped out of the window, there would have been footprints in the flowerbed” (There are no footprints in the flowerbed, so he didn’t jump out of the window), as you said in many other threads?
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Hi. JJ and TT.

    Shouldn’t detective 2 say “If he had jumped out of the window, there would have been footprints in the flowerbed” (There are no footprints in the flowerbed, so he didn’t jump out of the window), as you said in many other threads?
    No, absolutely not; the other cases were not equivalent.

    Here he knows there are no footprints, so the closed condition is applicable.
     

    JJXR

    Senior Member
    Russian
    Thanks for the response, TT.

    You said the following in another thread:
    The second conditional can be used in what I call the detective's conditional - If Stephen strangled her, his footprints would be in the garden - but there are no footprints in the garden, so Stephen didn't strangle her.
    As I understand it, since the interpretation is "but there are no footprints in the garden, so Stephen didn't strangle her", the detective has already been to the garden and knows that there are no footprints there.

    The same logic can be employed in the context I came up with in post #31.
     

    Edinburgher

    Senior Member
    German/English bilingual
    No. The "detective's conditional" is speculative, i.e. the detective does not know whether the condition is true or not.
    When the detective does know, then it isn't speculative, and therefore not a detective's conditional.
     

    thetazuo

    Senior Member
    Chinese - China
    Thank you both.
    Here he knows there are no footprints, so the closed condition is applicable.
    I have a similar doubt. Isn’t this exactly the case where an open detective’s conditional is used? (Simple past in the if-clause)
    When the detective does know, then it isn't speculative, and therefore not a detective's conditional.
    In a detective’s conditional, the detective has to have known some evidence in order to deduce back from the main clause to the if clause. In JJ’s context, detective 2 has to have known there are no footprints and then deduces backwards.
    If he doesn’t know whether there are footprints, he would have said “If he jumped out of the window, there will have been footprints in the flowerbed.".

    Doesn’t this make sense? :confused:
     

    JJXR

    Senior Member
    Russian
    When the detective does know, then it isn't speculative, and therefore not a detective's conditional.
    To be more precise the example in post #31 is an example of an inferential conditional.
    If he had jumped out of the window, there would have been footprints in the flowerbed” (There are no footprints in the flowerbed, so he didn’t jump out of the window)
    Thetazuo's version can also be an example of an inferential conditional.

    If he jumped out of the window, there would have been footprints in the flowerbed.

    If "there would have been footprints in the flowerbed" is read counterfactually, that causes the hearer to infer that "he jumped out of the window" is false.

    If he jumped out of the window, there would be footprints in the flowerbed.

    If "there would be footprints in the flowerbed" is read counterfactually, that causes the hearer to infer that "he jumped out of the window" is false.
     

    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    Whether the speaker uses a type 3 if-clause or a real past (indicative) if-clause largely depends on what message they want to communicate.
    • Type 3:
      If he had jumped out of the window, there would have been footprints in the flowerbed.
      Message: He didn't jump out of the window. If you don't believe me, look in the flowerbed (which I have already done, which is why I know he didn't jump out of the window).
    • Type 3/2:
      If he had jumped out of the window, there would be footprints in the flowerbed.
      Message: Same as Type 3. The footprints (if they existed) would still be there, after all.
    • Detectives:
      If he jumped out of the window, there would have been footprints in the flowerbed.
      Message: You clearly aren't convinced or don't yet realise that he could not have jumped out of the window. However, you can see there are no footprints, so, logically, he could not have jumped out of the window.
    • Real past:
      If he jumped out of the window, there would be footprints in the flowerbed.
      Message: I don't yet know whether or not he jumped out of the window and I have not yet looked in the flowerbed, but if we go and look we might be able to rule out his having jumped out of the window.
    The detective's conditional is something that a clever detective might say to a rather slow assistant.
     

    thetazuo

    Senior Member
    Chinese - China
    Thank you very much, Jack.
    The detective's conditional is something that a clever detective might say to a rather slow assistant.
    So the detective’s conditional can also work in JJXR’s context if detective 2 thought detective 2 slow to react?
     

    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    Thank you very much, Jack.

    So the detective’s conditional can also work in JJXR’s context if detective 2 thought detective 2 slow to react?
    I think it the conversation in post #31 is plausible. However, it would also be possible for detective 2 to use a type 3 or a mixed type 3/2 conditional.
     

    thetazuo

    Senior Member
    Chinese - China
    Yes, I know that you said the conversation in post 31 is OK.
    Detective #2 to detective #1: "If, as you say, he jumped out of the window, there would be footprints in the flowerbed."
    Real past:
    If he jumped out of the window, there would be footprints in the flowerbed.
    Message: I don't yet know whether or not he jumped out of the window and I have not yet looked in the flowerbed, but if we go and look we might be able to rule out his having jumped out of the window.
    But in JJXR’s conversation, it’s the real past conditional that is used instead of the detective’s conditional.
     

    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    Yes, I know that you said the conversation in post 31 is OK.


    But in JJXR’s conversation, it’s the real past conditional that is used instead of the detective’s conditional.
    Oh yes, sorry. Well, that, too, is plausible, although it does not indicate that the speaker is emphasising the absence of footprints. It would be a suitable thing to say to invite the other person to look at the flowerbed, or to respond, "But there aren't any footprints".

    The situation in post #31 is not one in which there is a single correct way of expressing something, particularly since we don't know exactly what the situation was or what message the person wanted to convey. It is very difficult (and rather pointless) discussing this sort of thing without context. It is far easier to take a sentence from a written source (preferably one that is available online so we can all read what is happening) and asking why a writer used a particular from of words, or whether a different form of words was possible.
     

    DonnyB

    Sixties Mod
    English UK Southern Standard English
    Reluctant as I am to call a halt to what members have, I'm sure, found an interesting discussion, I feel bound to point out that we're straying well outside the scope of our forum by concocting imaginary scenarios and trying to analyse what they or might not signify.

    I hope thetazuo feels that his original question has been answered within the limitations of what our forum can achieve: thanks to everyone for their contributions. This thread is now closed. DonnyB - moderator.
     
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