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It's often said that non-native speakers have a poor understanding of the English tenses. I'm not one to disagree, but on the whole I've always thought tenses weren't that hard, until I got to the conditionals and the subjunctive. Since trying to learn a bit more about them, I've gotten really lost. At this point, I'm trying to understand the differences between these four "constructions":

  1. If ever there were to be held a vote on X
  2. If ever there was to be held a vote on X
  3. If ever one were to hold a vote on X
  4. If ever we'd (decide to) hold a vote on X

For clarity: I'll be refering to these examples as "constructions", when I mention an "action", I'm talking about the verb or word group that follows the auxiliary verb(s). In the examples, the action, then, is to hold a vote.
I'm thinking these constructions are expressing four different things:

  1. Whatever follows this, will deal with the outcome of this hypothetical action. Even so, the action is likely never to take place. Something like: "If ever there were to be held a vote on the intelligence of sheep, The international community would really think we've lost the plot".
  2. This , to me, expresses that at some point in time, it would have been possible for the action to take place, but it didn't. Though the rest of the sentence deals with the run-up to that action in a sort of know-it-all, historian trying to put things into context sort of way. "If ever there was to be an all-out nuclear war, the Cuba crises was when that would've happend, and people were truly terrified."
  3. Simply expressing something that is, in theory possible, but will never become reality. The action is either tedious, requires too much effort or authority you don't have: "If one were to get every able bodied person to jump down on the ground at the same time, the resulting earthquake would be massive"
  4. Same as 3, only in this case, it would be possible to undertake the action, but either its outcome is considered a given, or it's possible that the result of that action is something one would avoid, so it's never going to happen. It's a phrase that a politician might say: "If ever we'd hold a vote on our raising taxes, people would be livid, we'd get the first unanimous result in democratic history and never get re-elected again"

I'd like to know if I'm completely wrong here, and what these conditionals mean to the native speakers. Some sort of reliable on-line resource on the matter would be most helpful, too.

  • For one native speaker's opinion, constructions (1), (2), and (3) all mean the same thing. Construction (2) is the same as construction (1), except the subjunctive has been replaced by the indicative. This replacement is slowly happening in English, and in another hundred years the subjunctive may be completely gone from conditional clauses. Constructions (1) and (3) are the same, except when you replace "there" with "one", you have to replace the passive voice with the active voice; this doesn't change the meaning of the verb construction. – Peter Shor Aug 8 '13 at 12:03
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I agree with the comment from @PeterShor that constructions 1-3 all effectively mean the same. Construction 4 is just awkward, but I wouldn't interpret it differently from the others.

On the other hand, they all seem somewhat long-winded, and could simply be written as:

If ever a vote were held on X

As regards your four 'meanings':

  1. I think the use of "If ever" rather than simply "If ..." is what conveys the possibly hypothetical nature of the action, and therefore that hypothetical nature carries through all your constructions.

  2. To convey your second meaning, I would use the past perfect tense:

    If ever there were to have been ...

  3. To convey your third meaning, I would omit "ever" and write:

    If, theoretically, ...

  4. To convey your fourth meaning, I'd use something like:

    If ever we were actually to hold ...
    If ever a vote were actually to be held ...

In summary, no, I don't think that the constructions actually convey different meanings, and, if I wanted to convey such nuances, I would use additional words and/or different tenses.

  • Thanks for the info, though you say you'd use additional words (as would I) or different tenses. Could you elaborate on that? What tenses would you use to express what? I'm well aware that these examples are a bit long-winded, so feel free to leave those pesky "If ever..." bits. That's what you get if you decide to argue over English tenses during a lunch-break... – Elias Van Ootegem Aug 8 '13 at 13:39
  • I only meant the additional words/tenses that I've mentioned in my answer - tense in #2 & words in #3 & #4, as now italicised. – – TrevorD Aug 9 '13 at 11:06
  • Thanks, but I'm still a bit confused by case #4. Your examples use (if I'm not mistaken) the past subjunctive in combination with either the passive simple past or passive future past (continuous?). Is this correct, or are you using different tenses, and do they really convay the same thing? I am, of course, aware that what they may denote the same thing, and connotation depends almost entirely on context, so rather than asking for private tutoring, naming the tenses will do. Once I know the tenses, I can look them up in my English grammar books from my college years and take it from there. – Elias Van Ootegem Aug 9 '13 at 11:38
  • My main point in #4 was the combined use of "ever" & "actually", in order to convey your meaning that it's hypothetical but could/might "actually" happen - and I thought that the words were better separated than next to one another. As regards you question about what tenses I used, I'm afraid that's *actually*(!) beyond my academic knowledge of English: I'm comfortable that it's correct and appropriate, but I regret that I can't explain the tenses further. (You could try asking a separate question on ELU and link to this one if appropriate.) – TrevorD Aug 9 '13 at 11:55
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"If ever there were ..." is the correct grammar for this sentence. Use of the subjunctive "tense" indicates the uncertainty or temporal nature of that which you are trying to convey. The singular past tense "was" is often used in common, everday speech and is generally understood equivalently, but emphasis and conditionality are imparted to the meaning of the statement by using the plural past tense, i.e. "were."

  • Also, continuing my comment above, it is interesting to note that use of the subjunctive past tense (were) also includes the present moment in time and not simply a past event. A similar form of this construction occurs in the temporally conditional statement "If ever there is a ...". Using the present tense "is" actually connotes an event which may occur in the future and not necessarily in the present moment. Isn't language fun? – Salo Dec 11 '15 at 18:38

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