Using mixed conditionals to hedge your bets
Turmoil prevails regarding the use of modal verbs in Present-Day English. We can posit any number of deep underlying reasons for this. Modern life, for instance, remains stubbornly uncertain, despite (or perhaps indeed because of) the extent to which industrial society attempts to control the future. Likewise, growing belief in a world of technology programmed by computers in binary code, in accordance with strict scientific rules of cause and effect, contrasts sharply with a residual tendency still to think and act more in accordance with hunches, animal spirits, instincts, feelings, and faith.
Nowhere is this confusion more apparent than in the discourse of those modern-day oracles called elections and the pundits charged with forecasting their outcome.
Newspapers are currently filled with speculation as to what a different US president might do in the near future. In this context, it is not at all unusual to see the rules of grammar as they are taught in course books regularly breached … and, most often, for the very good reason that no such rules in fact exist.
A case in point is the use of the conditional.
Conventional grammar books trot out the usual typology that divides conditional sentences up into three (or four) types.
The categories are as misleading as they are exquisitely neat; complete with (pseudo-) scientific-sounding coding system. Furthermore, (hurrah) the rules can easily be jotted down on the back of an envelope.
The Zero conditional refers to effects that follow logically or automatically from a condition (the computer code type of ‘if…then’ statement). If x2 equals 4 and x is non-negative, then x equals 2. [If + Present Simple, Present Simple]
The First Conditional refers to a future event with a fairly high degree of likelihood.
If it rains, we will hold the event indoors. [If + Present Simple, will + Infinitive]
The Second Conditional refers to future events that are unlikely or counterfactuals (i.e. things that are patently not true).
If the sun disappeared tomorrow, the earth would freeze.
I wouldn’t do that, if I were you.
[If + Past Simple, would + Infinitive]
Some grammar books also include a fourth Past Conditional to refer to events that did not occur (counterfactuals) in the past.
If Napoleon had conquered Russia, people in Vladivostock would have had to learn French.
[If + Past Perfect, would (have) + Past Participle]
Inclusion of the Past Conditional in fact upsets the whole neat and tidy system. It should be covered by the Second Conditional, but, if we do include it in that category, we will have to admit that the form of the verb in the main clause can be something different from would + Infinitive.
If we let in one exception, why not permit many? Come to think of it, why should we not allow any exception whatsoever?
This in fact is what real-life language users do all the time.
An article on Joe Biden in today’s Guardian newspaper bears the headline If he wins, what would the first 100 days of his presidency look like? https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/oct/28/joe-biden-presidency-first-100-days
Here a First Conditional-type ‘if-clause’ is combined with a Second Conditional-type main clause. Far from being anomalous, in everyday life, such mixing of different types of conditional is quite common and is used to enable expression to a subtler range of degrees doubt and certainty and our attitudes towards them than it is possible to covere with a simple logical schema.
In real life, flux and ambiguity are the rule.
In this headline, for example, the mixed conditional serves two not entirely compatible purposes. First, more explicitly, the use of Present Simple in the if-clause suggests that a Biden victory is likely, while the use of ‘would’ in the main clause indicates that what he might do thereafter is much less predictable.
In fact, this reflects a broader rule that we can use any modal verb to convey a degree of probability or uncertainty with regard to past, present or future and the article that follows is thus duly peppered with ‘might’s and ‘could’s and ‘may’s and so forth, in reference to a Biden presidency.
More implicitly, however, this headline also suggests that the degree of likelihood of Biden being elected president in fact lies somewhere between the two levels of probability that the First and Second Conditionals alone would convey. It is probable, but not as likely as one might wish… Best hedge one’s bets…
As one analytically-minded philosopher has put it: simple predictions about the future can be tested and proved true or false when the future comes to pass; statements about probability, absent access to multiple universes, cannot. We will know some day who wins the election next Tuesday. Who might have won, however, will remain forever in doubt.