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I have a question about what if...

Here's the thing:

  1. Do you think they shouldn't attend that school? What if they would become great musicians?
  2. Do you think they shouldn't attend that school? What if they became great musicians?

Which sentence with 'what if' is correct? (I'm leaning towards the second option, but somehow, the first makes me feel it better conveys the meaning.)

If example two is correct and one is wrong, is there any sentence where what if + would is grammatically correct?

Thanks.

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    I believe #2 is acceptable, but what if they were to become great musicians? might be more common in written (not oral) use. – anongoodnurse Feb 10 '14 at 21:04
  • Whilst I agree with Susan I still find the sentences difficult to understand. What is going on here? I am thinking of it as a conversation between the mother and father. One of them thinks the children should go to this particular school, which excels in music, the other doesn't. If that be the case wouldn't the parent in favour say something like: 'Are you saying they shouldn't go to that school? But (just think, if they did) they might become great musicians.' – WS2 Feb 10 '14 at 21:27
  • I think #1 should be thought of as short for "What if they would become great musicians (if they attended that school)". To my ear, it's better than #2. But really, the sentence should be rewritten. – Peter Shor Feb 10 '14 at 21:55
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"Do you think they shouldn't attend that school? What if they would become great musicians?"

This example sounds awkward and mildly ambiguous to me. The ambiguity arises from the fact that would can have the meaning "strongly desire [to]," as in the movie title The Man Who Would Be King. So one reading of the second sentence above is:

What if they strongly desire to become great musicians?

But I suspect that the speaker has a different meaning in mind. Unfortunately that meaning is somewhat obscured by the omission from the second sentence of the intended condition under which "they" would become great musicians in the what-if scenario—namely, that they attend the school. Adding that condition to the second sentence is easy:

What if by doing so they would become great musicians?

or:

What if they would become great musicians as a result [of attending it]?

By introducing the condition into the what-if sentence, we avoid any possibility that readers might read the would in that sentence as meaning "strongly desire [to]." The use of "would become" in place of "became" is somewhat colloquial, but in an informal setting it seems reasonable enough.


"Do you think they shouldn't attend that school? What if they became great musicians?"

Because would has vanished from the scene, the second sentence in this version of the example doesn't have a built-in ambiguity. But the example still works better (I think) if we add the implied condition to it:

What if by doing so they became great musicians?

or:

What if they became great musicians as a result [of attending it]?


Is there any sentence where what if + would is grammatically correct?

It's not hard to imagine snippets of dialogue in which using "what if" + "would" is the most coherent and natural-sounding way to handle a hypothetical scenario. For example:

Person A: I bet you'd eat a whole coconut cream pie right now if you could.

Person B: What if I would?

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The second one seems more natural to me in the following sense: we don't know if they will become great musicians or not at this point (although clearly there is some promise). But, in the future, we will know for certain if they are or are not professional kazoo players and then, we would look back on this experience and ask why they didn't attend this school when they became great musicians out of their best friends garage. [please forgive my filling in the gaps in the narrative]

Alternatively, if you were to say the following (back in the present) : "What if they became great musicians? Wouldn't you want them to have [motive for attending school that is not clear in the given sentences]?", the use of became seems more natural than "would become", although I might be persuaded to also invoke "were to become" in this rewording.

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I don't see any possible difference in meaning. I don't think the first option is grammatically acceptable, simply because there are rules on which clauses you can put a 'would' in, and a 'what if' doesn't allow one.

Compare the following:

I hope he would tell me the answer. (wrong)

I hope he will tell me the answer.

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    If I gave him enough time, I hope he would tell me the answer. – tchrist Jul 14 '14 at 18:47
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"would become" is more commonly used when describing the effect of a single conditional:

If I could get my hands on that weapon, then I would become the most powerful person in the world!

To phrase your context in this manner:

If they attended that school, then they would become great musicians.

You can use "would become" in the first part of the conditional:

If you would become the most powerful person in the world, then I must kill you.

But your example is trying to use it in a nested hypothetical:

What if you would become the most powerful person in the world?

Using "would become" here assumes a second "if":

What if you would become the most powerful person in the world if you got your hands on that weapon?

Your example's full context provides the second "if" in the first sentence. Merging the sentences together is stylistically ugly but it can help highlight what is happening:

What if they would become great musicians [if they attended that school]?

Note that the "if" doesn't have to be a literal "if":

What if they would become great musicians [as a result of attending that school]?

What if they would become great musicians [because they attended that school]?

Therefore, your first example is correct usage.


Your second example uses "became" which does not automatically assume a second conditional. You could simply ask:

What if they became great musicians?

The presence of the first sentence in your context does imply such a second conditional and this is perfectly acceptable:

Do you think they shouldn't attend that school? What if they became great musicians?

It is clear from the context that the "became" clause is implying that they would become musicians as a result of attending the school. Technically this association is unnecessary and you could theoretically read the question as:

Do you think they shouldn't attend that school? I want them to become lawyers by attending that school. What if they became great musicians [because they didn't attend that school]?

But this is less common and is more likely to confuse readers. So, in the end, the second example is also correct usage and conveys the same meaning as the first example.

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