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I’m struggling with a conditional clause. This one is easy:

If I were you, I would do xyz ...

But I have these three statements:

I was a student.

It was my vacation.

My professor gave me this assignment.

Now, I want to turn these three into conditional clauses:

If I were a student, and it were my vacation, and my professor gave me this assignment, I would do xyz ...

Somehow, this doesn’t sound right. How do I fix it? (I want to keep the informal, conversational tone denoted by the repeated and)

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Don't see what's wrong with your sentence myself, other than possibly having to "if it were"s in the same sentence sounds slightly over-pedantic to my ears. –  Neil Coffey Mar 17 '11 at 2:13
    
Can't see anything wrong with the sentence. –  n0nChun Mar 17 '11 at 6:51
    
There's nothing technically wrong with it beyond the repeated "and"s Jen points out. I think the question is how to rephrase a sentence made of those clauses in such a way as to keep it grammatical and keep/expand the informal, conversational tone, but make it less ungainly, which as a native speaker/reader/writer I will admit can be difficult with the subjunctive... –  kitukwfyer Mar 18 '11 at 3:48

6 Answers 6

up vote 4 down vote accepted

If you begin with a sentence in the present and you turn it into an unreal situation with an if clause ("if x were true now, y would be true now too: but x isn't true now, and neither is y"), you normally use the past subjunctive + would:

I am rich and I am arrogant

=> If I were rich, I'd be arrogant (but I'm not rich, and I'm not arrogant).

If you begin with a situation in the past and you turn it into an unreal situation in the past ("if x had been true then, y would have been true then too: but we know x wasn't true then, and y wasn't either"), you use the past perfect subjunctive and would + have + past participle:

Russian communism worked and there were no economic problems

=> If Russian communism had worked, there wouldn't have been economic problems (but it didn't work, and there were problems).

Of course other combinations are possible, but this is the basic system. If you have a two- or threefold condition, as in your example, the tenses used depend on two things:

  1. Is the main situation supposed to be an unreal situation in the past or in the present?

  2. Are the parts of the condition (the if clauses) supposed to be happening at the same time, or did one happen before the others? If they didn't happen at the same time, those that were earlier than the "main" situation should be put in a tense that precedes the tense of the main situation (if possible): if the main situation is an unreal situation in the present, earlier parts should be in the past perfect subjunctive.

Let's assume that your example is about an unreal situation in the present ("if x were true now, y would be true now too"). It matters then whether all three things happened at roughly the same time—in this case, in the order by which they are mentioned: first A, then B, then C—or the assignment was given before the vacation.

If you were given this assignment before your vacation, this should be marked by putting the "assignment" if clause in the past perfect subjunctive ("had given"), to show that it happened before the "vacation" if clause. If your professor called you during your vacation to give you this assignment, you would simply use the past subjunctive ("gave").

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Do you perhaps like the sound of

If I were a student, and it were my vacation, and my professor had given me this assignment, I would do xyz ...

any better?

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1  
+1 that's the only change I could see making if you're wanting to keep the "and..." repetition. –  Dusty Mar 16 '11 at 22:57
    
Thanks, this does sound better -- are both gave and had given correct grammatically, and if so, is there a difference in meaning? –  The English Chicken Mar 16 '11 at 22:58
1  
Yes - in this conditional future of yours, the giving would have happened in the past, rather than happening in the present. –  lotsoffreetime Mar 16 '11 at 23:09
1  
Were to have given is also correct here, but some call it formal. –  Jon Purdy Mar 17 '11 at 0:38

What about:

If I were a student and my professor gave me this assignment on my vacation, I would do xyz...

While it eliminates one of the ands I find it easier to read.

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I don't think your version is bad, really. I'd probably do something like

If I were a student and it was my vacation, and if it was my professor that had given me the assignment, I'd xyz the xyz.

This isn't based on explicit rules, but on a sense of how it I could emphasize the nested conditionals as belonging within another (counterfactual?) condition.

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Here's an option that takes more liberties with your original clauses.

"If I were a student, and my professor assigned something over break, I'd [put it off 'til the last minute and complain about it]." (That's actually a true story ;_;...)

You lose a little informality with the single "and," but I think the other changes I made make up for it.

Good luck!

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Since the context is informal, maybe you don't need to be quite so thorough and explicit.

I would try to find a way to write something like:

If I were you, I would...

If that happened to me, I would...

If I had a professor like that, I would...

I would...

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