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Hypotheticals vs. Contrary-to-Fact

situational-hypothetical-questionsSomehow I am getting news announcements from The New York Times on my iPhone. I don’t know how I elected this option, but it’s interesting to see what they choose to send me and how they choose to word it. Here’s what floated in on the morning of January 17:

18 million would lose insurance and premiums would soar in 2018 if Obamacare is partially repealed, a congressional study says.

Now, I know we get our panties in an unnecessary twist when it comes to things like the conditional tense and the subjunctive mood, now known by other terms as linguists like my colleague Geoff Pullum have established a more robust framework for discussions of English grammar. But regardless of what we understand, technically, about these constructions, we native speakers understand that a sentence with if introducing an antecedent clause and would as the modal verb in the main clause is one of two things:

  1. A past-tense statement, e.g. “If we were spending the weekend at Grandma’s, she would make us pancakes.”
  2. A contrary-to-fact statement, e.g., “If I were hungry, I would eat those pancakes, but I’m not so I won’t.”

There are also if clauses serving as antecedents in sentences in which the modal verb is in the indicative. They could be past tense, e.g., “If we were spending the weekend at Grandma’s, she made us pancakes.” But when the main modal verb is indicative and in the present tense, the statement is generally hypothetical, e.g., “If I get hungry, I will tackle those pancakes.”

Or, to return to the hypothetical fate of health-care insurance in America, “18 million will lose insurance and premiums will soar in 2018 if Obamacare is partially repealed, a congressional study says.”

Often, as language has evolved, we use a plain old indicative verb following if in a contrary-to-fact statement, e.g., “If I was hungry, I would eat those pancakes, but I’m not so I won’t.” But rarely, and only in very particular circumstances, do we use the modal verb would following the use of a present-tense indicative after if.

Bear with me. This matters. Not a lot, but a little.

Some examples, to help us picture this. We don’t tend to say, for instance, “If I get hungry, I would tackle those pancakes.” Someone paying attention might respond, “Well, are you or aren’t you hungry? You eating them, or should I give them to the dog?” Similarly, we don’t tend to say, “If he is ready to go, he would come downstairs.” (We might say he should  come downstairs, but that’s a different verb and a different matter.) Instead, we frame his readiness as either a hypothetical or a counterfactual:

  1. “If he were ready to go, he would come downstairs,” or, if we’re being less snooty about it, “If he was ready to go, he would come downstairs” = he’s clearly not ready to go, which is why he’s not downstairs.
  2. “If he is ready to go, he will come downstairs” = watch those stairs, because he may be ready to go any second and will appear.

The New York Times didn’t choose any of these options. Why not? you ask. Indeed. I asked myself the same question. And here’s what I think:

When you’re setting forth a hypothetical whose consequences are such that no one really wants to be thinking about them, you’re tempted to play down those consequences — to make them appear, as it were, contrary to fact rather than entirely possible. To take my last example, if “he” is a cannibalistic monster, and I’m worried about his being ready to go before I can beat a retreat, you might wish to reassure me while not closing the door to the possibility of the monster’s appearance. That inherent tension might cause you to say (or write), “If he’s ready to go, he would come downstairs.” Thank goodness, I think. He’s not downstairs now, and he’s probably not coming. I’ll hang around for tea.

Similarly, the bit of news on my iPhone, “18 million would lose insurance and premiums would soar in 2018 if Obamacare is partially repealed,” doesn’t frighten me so much as the statement “18 million will lose insurance and premiums will soar in 2018 if Obamacare is partially repealed.” At the same time, the Times is not claiming in any way that Obamacare will not be repealed, as the statement “18 million would lose insurance and premiums would soar in 2018 if Obamacare were (or was) partially repealed” would indicate.

This matters because, if the possibility is frightening, the news of it should alarm us. Fudging the verbs removes the alarm just as the alarm should be sounding. Yes, it sells more newspapers. Yes, it prevents your detractors from selectively quoting the consequent without the antecedent (NYT CLAIMS 18 MILLION WILL LOSE INSURANCE AND PREMIUMS WILL RISE) and accusing you of “fake news.” But grammatically and journalistically, it ushers us into a gray area just at the moment when we need as much clarity as we can muster for the days ahead.w

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