Dear moderators, I have some questions on second conditional which I really hope some of you could clarify them for me. I have learned English more than 10 years now and I feel lucky that I am able to pull off most of the grammar problems of English I come across without much difficulty. However, there are still two areas in English I still stranded on. The first one is prepositions and the second one is second conditional/subjunctive.
For the prepositions problem, I visited many websites and did some research on my own, I found that despites everything stated by the rules of prepositions, some of those naughty ones you just have to remember by heart and no other way. For example, at sea and on the ocean, hardcore practice is the only way to hack through this grey area of English. The second grey area of mine, which is second conditional or some might say subjunctive is the area that I am totally lost in (never ends a sentence with a preposition, ha, oldest rule from Latin).
I don’t know how others feel about English but to me, English grammar has many rules and often more exceptions are there for each rule you come across in your study. No offence, I think every language has its pros and cons in communication and sure those rules are just some loosely attached guidelines for people to understand a language. I like English, especially after I learn how compact a sentence can be with the use of prepositions. However, second conditional or subjunctive, which some people might call it, is the blockage of thought I have whenever I try to think in English. By the oldest rule in the book, one should always use past tense when you are making hypothetical situation. However, the more I come across native English speaker and the more I watch the occurrence of second conditional in movies, the more I have doubts on the rule that says put everything make out of subjunctive or second conditional must be in past tense. For example, following are the examples:
1) If I were a millionaire, I would buy myself a rocket and shoot myself up to the star where my hand is pointing right now.
(Guess: Since my hand is actually pointing at the star right now, change the sentence to “my hand was pointing right now” would make the sentence sounds awkward. But if this present tense for present action can be used, then the second conditional rule, which states that every verb used in second conditional or subjunctive must be in past tense, no longer holds!
2) If I were born in some poorest area in the world, I think I would know how it feels like to live in fear and starvation everyday. But luckily I am not and I do thank god for that.
(Guess: does the clause “how it feels like to live in fear and starvation” is an independent clause? That is why present tense instead of past tense can be used? What if we change this clause to all past tense?
3) If I were a boy, I think I could understand how it feels like to love a girl, I sear I would be a better man (this sentence is actually copied from “if I were a boy” lyric).
(Guess: This is the one I actually hear from music. Got myself confused and started listened to the whole song and even went online to search for the lyric. Still confused with the present tense usage.
4) If I were a powerful figure like the president of United States, people would think that I am knowledgeable and powerful and they would even agree with me on those political issues that I have totally no idea about.
(Guess: I often find this type of suddenly present tense cases from books or even movies, can the clause “I have totally no idea about” be used because in reality I really don’t have any idea about those issues?)
5) If I were kidnapped by those bandits, they probably would take me to some places I have no idea about, torture me and held me for ransom.
(Guess: Same as above, “some places I have no idea about”, I still don’t know where the places are and that is why present tense is used? Or change all to past tense?
6) I wish this statue I am holding in my hand would turn to gold.
(Guess: The statue is still in my hand, which is why present tense is used? But the rule says all subjunctive cases must be in past tense? Independent clause again?
7) I wish I knew where he is hiding now so I could catch him myself and bring him in for justice.
(Guess: “where is hiding now”, this sentence makes perfect sense to me to listen to because “where he was hiding now” does sound a bit unnatural to me. Maybe only me?
8) I wish I knew why he hates me, this meeting is the first time I’ve ever seen him.
(Guess: he still hates me and that is why present tense is used?
9) I wish I had lots of money so I could buy my mom those dresses that she has always wanted.
(Guess: At the point of speaking, my mom still fancies of the dresses, that is why present tense can be used?
10) I wish I was a millionaire so I could buy all those fancy cars I has always dreamt of everyday. The next thing I would do is to donate portion of my fortune to the church to pay back the charity I received when I was a kid. I would even build myself a public swimming pool so those people who live here could have a hot summer bath when the fall comes in.
(Guess: I still dream of those cars, present tense is used. “The next thing I would do is/was”, often I hear people use is instead of was, rule breaking again? “Those people who live here”, present tense is used here to states that those people still live here?
The above examples seem like lots of question, but I think it is the concept of how native English speaker would pick his/her verbs of choice that I cannot grip on. Is there a rule or exception in English which says that if the action or situation is still present, use present tense for those clauses in second conditional? How English speaker think when they are speaking in second conditional? For example:
If I were his father, I would sit there and listen to his problem. I will tell him he is doing the wrong thing by divorcing his wife. As his father, I am willing to think of any possible way there is to think of to salvage their relationship. I will try my best to make them see how their future might have been if they stay together since they already have three children, and I will make them see how many problems they will face if they ever get divorced and how often people will go back together again and say how stupid they were to have divorce in the first place simply because of some daily arguments they had in their lives.
I am not a native speaker, but I believe many native speakers have the same problem as I do, at least before they enter college, when they speak. From those research that I found, generally those with college level of education know exactly when to change to past tense when second conditional cases occur. And those who are in elementary schools or secondary schools often make mistake in second conditional. Here is the inconsistency of tenses used by xth grader whenever they try to make a long hypothetical essay. This website shows exactly the subjunctive problems that every English learners face, which is tense consistency:
- If I were mayor... essay winners honored by City of Auburn
Native speaker do not always make long hypothetical assumptions in past tense, do they? Short hypothetical statements in past tense as those examples given by grammar books, this I understand. What I don’t understand is, if every speech of yours in making long assumption be converted to past tense, wouldn’t it make your brain feels like traffic jam and seemingly to explode? Whenever I try to make up a hypothetical thought in my head, I simply can’t do it because I am really confused about which tense to choose from and simply sounds awkward and strange to me to think in past tense for present but unreal condition. We often use cases like “if I were”, “if she were”, “if you were” in our daily life, some thoughtful ones would even make long hypothetical thoughts for everything, like Einstein, Newton, Pascal etc. If every long assumptions they made had been in past tense, I doubt that we could still have relativity theory, gravitational theory or even fluid dynamic at our disposal. I am a movie freak, I watch lots of movies in my life, especially Oscar movies disregard nominated or won. And I do watch a lot of English talk show. To my surprise, I found that many celebrities in the movies or on the shows are not able to keep up the tense consistency in their speeches, and the hosts of those shows seems like just keep avoiding second conditional questions to make their guests sounds smart. I have always wish that I could learn the second conditional usage in one of those talk shows but somehow none could provide me with a complete example of tense consistency in subjunctive.
Please continue to part 2 before you answer this question.
1) You're not a millionaire and cannot afford the rocket, so those parts are conditional and imaginary, but you really are pointing at the star, so the present tense makes sense not the past to me.
2) I would use 'If I had been born ... I would know. But, luckily, I wasn't