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  • "If two Weeping Angels were to look at each other at the same time, they would be trapped in stone form until an outside force moves them apart."

My questions are about the phrase "were to look":

  1. What's the meaning?

  2. What's the differences between it and just one word "look"

  3. In which section of my grammar book I can find this kind of usage?

  • It's the difference between subjunctive and conditional. I'll let someone better qualified explain the details :D – Matt E. Эллен Apr 27 '14 at 8:17
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"If two Weeping Angels were to look at each other at the same time, they would be trapped in stone form until an outside force moves them apart."

My questions are about the phrase "were to look":

  1. What's the meaning?

Your example sentence is in the form of a remote conditional construction. The remote conditional is used to show that there is modal remoteness, or unlikeliness, of a situation to occur. Your example is similar in meaning to the version that uses "looked":

  • "If two Weeping Angels were to look at each other at the same time, they would be trapped in stone form until an outside force moves them apart." -- [REMOTE Conditional--the OP's original example]

  • "If two Weeping Angels looked at each other at the same time, they would be trapped in stone form until an outside force moves them apart." -- [REMOTE Conditional]

Both of the above remote conditional versions have the same meaning, but the "were to look" version (which uses a quasi-modal BE) has a slightly stronger implicature of unlikelihood (2002 CGEL, page 753).

  1. What's the differences between it and just one word "look".

The version with "look" (instead of "were to look" or "looked") is an open conditional construction, where no judgement is being made as to the likeliness or unlikeliness of a situation to occur. This is what your open conditional would look like:

  • "If two Weeping Angels look at each other at the same time, they will be trapped in stone form until an outside force moves them apart." -- [OPEN Conditional]

Notice in the above version that the past-tense "would" is replaced with the present-tense "will".

Be aware that there cannot be a corresponding open conditional version for your example that uses the present-tense phrase of "are to look". This is because the OP's example uses the quasi-modal BE verb. If the present-tense "are to look" was used, then the sentence would have a quite different meaning (2002 CGEL, page 151). And so, for the OP's example, there is only one open conditional version to correspond to the two remote conditional versions.

  1. In which section of my grammar book I can find this kind of usage?

Different grammars use different terminology. In the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum et al., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL), they used the terms: open conditional constructions, remote conditional constructions, conditional adjuncts, quasi-modal BE, "BE + infinitival", etc.

Traditional grammars use terminology that I think is confusing. Some EFL textbooks make up a whole lot of extra terminology. The grammar stuff on the internet, including wikipedia, seems to mostly be a mishmash of different grammars, and so, that too will be confusing.

ADDED: Info related to the phrase "BE to V", when the "BE" verb is in present-tense. CGEL page 753:

Protases with 'be + to' and should

[46]

  • i.a. (#) If it is to rain, I'll cancel the show. - - [open conditional]

  • i.b. If it were to rain, I'd cancel the show. - - [remote conditional]

  • ii.a-b . . .

There is an idiomatic use of what we call 'quasi-modal be' that occurs only in remote conditionals like [i.b]. In the open conditional If we are to survive we'll have to drastically reduce expenditures the protasis suggests purpose ("In order to survive, we'll have to drastically reduce expenditure"), which is why [i.a] is pragmatically anomalous.

In the remote conditional, this quasi-modal be serves merely to reinforce the remote meaning: the protasis of [i.b] means "if it rained" but with a slightly stronger implicature of unlikelihood. It occurs predominantly in future time protases. . . .

  • then what's the different meaning when "are to look" is used? – Slimpothive May 3 '14 at 19:18
  • @user73344 The phrase "are to V" would suggest purpose, and in your example, if it used "are to look", it would basically mean: "In order for two Weeping Angles to look at each other, they will be trapped in stone form …" which doesn't really make sense. Compare to this: "If two angels are to look at each other, they would have to wear sunglasses so that their eyes don't accidentally burn each other." -- I'll update my post with a related excerpt from CGEL 753. – F.E. May 3 '14 at 20:11
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The construction used in the sentence is an 'if-clause' in which the form were is followed by an infinitive. It is a common construction as shown below:

'Were to' is used in the present to place emphasis on the improbability of the condition. It shows that something is highly unlikely or unthinkable.

  • If he were to be my boss, I think I would quit the next day.

'Were to' can be used in the future to emphasise that the conditional form is highly unlikely or unthinkable.

  • If Tess were to show up at the party tomorrow, Alison would not be very amused.

'Were to' in the past has the same function as in the present and the future. It emphasises a truly unthinkable conditional form.

  • If the bus were to have gone over the railings, all the passengers would have drowned.

The use of looked as a subjunctive would probably be less effective in conveying the idea of unlikeliness of the action described.

  • In your examples, I'd probably note that were doesn't impart any tense, and that, in fact, in your second example, it's still present tense but you've added tomorrow to "reset" the time. A better example might be "If Tess were going to show up at the party..." – jimsug Apr 27 '14 at 8:53
  • My stress is just on the use of 'were to'. Other options are acceptable off course. – user66974 Apr 27 '14 at 8:59
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    @Josh61 Nice examples.......can "was" replace "were" if the pronoun is "I" ?? – Gary's Student Apr 27 '14 at 10:17
  • The use of was is still a debated issue: The word 'were' in the phrase 'if I were you/ were to' is special form. It is known as the subjunctive mood (from the grammatical point of view). Today you also find the phrase 'if I was you/ was to'. Here the Simple Past form of be is used. But there are people who say that this phrase is incorrect and would never use it (mainly Americans). Others say that this phrase can be used. – user66974 Apr 27 '14 at 10:41
  • 'Were' is optional when 'if' is explicit. P.S. all verbs should be the same tense: 'would' then 'moved' instead of 'moves'; 'will' then 'moves' instead of 'moved'. ('Trapped' is a perfect participle so it doesn't change.) – AmI Dec 4 '15 at 21:57

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