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I have written the following sentence as part of the conclusion to my thesis. This represents one of the future research questions, i.e., it is not part of my research questions, it is something that should be researched later on:

  • One interesting question is whether the more complicated and less predictable sign-in process causes users to abandon tasks they were about to perform.

(Background: signing in with the new system is more complicated, and some users mentioned that if they thought they'll just check something 'optional' (i.e. "I'm interested in this, but I don't have to do/know it"), and they have to sign in again, they will just think "it's not worth the hassle", and abandon it.)

I could not find any references as to what the tenses of the verbs in the latter part ("causes" and "were") should be, or whether the current format is correct.

What are the rules for this? If this is correct, why can "causes" (present tense) and "were" (past tense) be combined like that?

  • Your example sounds fine to my ear. But to explain it grammatically as to why it is fine, er, . . . :) – F.E. May 11 '14 at 16:53
  • The three main uses for the past-tense is: past time, modal remoteness, backshift. The explanation for your "were" most likely involves either one or more of those. :) – F.E. May 11 '14 at 18:02
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So, in English, there is (perhaps unfortunately) no conditional mood. However, there are standard formulations of hypotheticals and the subjunctive mood (often considered to be dying out). Let's remove the first part of the sentence and focus on the question with just a little rephrasing to make it more clear:

Does the more complicated and less predictable sign-in process cause users to abandon tasks they were about to perform?

Now, let's rephrase this to explicitly focus on a conditional statement by reversing the clauses:

Are users more likely to abandon tasks they were about to perform because of the sign-in process is more complicated and less predictable?

The condition is hidden behind a cause and effect clause. I did my best to keep the above sentence in the present and past constructions as you originally offered, but it should make it fairly obvious that there is something wrong with the construction, namely that it is not currently a conditional formulation. There are two sensible ways to fix this:

  1. Change the first clause to use the present tense:

    Are users more likely to abandon tasks they are about to perform because the sign-in process is more complicated and less predictable?

  2. Change the first clause to use the simple conditional:

    Might users be more likely to abandon tasks they would otherwise perform because the sign-in process is more complicated and less predictable?

Personally, I prefer the second option (I have no real reason for this though, it just sounds better to me). Now, since these explicit conditionals (though enlightening) are a bit less elegant than the initial formulation, let's morph them back:

  1. Does the more complicated and less predictable sign-in process cause users to abandon tasks they are about to perform?

  2. Does the more complicated and less predictable sign-in process cause users to abandon tasks they might otherwise perform?

Drawing that out back to the full sentence, we get:

  1. One interesting question is whether the more complicated and less predictable sign-in process causes users to abandon tasks they are about to perform?

  2. One interesting question is whether the more complicated and less predictable sign-in process causes users to abandon tasks they might otherwise perform.

However, I might add that this sentence feels a bit odd because the introductory clause suggests that you intend to actually frame a question, but never offer one directly. I would recommend something like the following:

The above analysis prompts many interesting questions. For example, “Does the more complicated, and less predictable, sign-in process cause users to abandon tasks they might otherwise perform?”

This formulation frames your assertion as an actual question and keeps the conditional in its correct construction.

Finally, the use of and is not actually necessary here since it is a trait list, so you could simply separate them by a comma:

For example, “Does the more complicated, less predictable sign-in process cause users to abandon tasks they might otherwise perform?”


There are actually a fairly well-standardized set of conditional clauses in English which follow similar constructions, and there are many sites which cover them—here, for example.

  • I can see the subordinate interrogative clause with its question in the OP's example (and it was good of you to split it out first in your analysis), but could you show us more clearly the conditional part of it? – F.E. May 11 '14 at 16:52
  • Of course! I've added another section to try and cover the conditional clauses more clearly. I hope that helps. – HalosGhost May 11 '14 at 17:39
  • But the OP's example seems to be a question that is basically asking: "Does our complicated system cause users to abandon tasks which they had intended to do?" -- It is a given that their system is complicated (no conditional involved, but an assumed fact), and so, now, their problem is figuring out if that complicated system is having this bad side-effect of making users abandon intended tasks, and thus, a "question". – F.E. May 11 '14 at 17:49
  • On re-reading this, I don't believe I used the best conditional formulations to make my point. Let me give it another shot with what I think is a more clear example. – HalosGhost May 11 '14 at 17:56
  • A conditional that is somewhat similar to the OP's interrogative could be: "If our system is changed to be more complicated, will it chase away more users?" -- But the OP's situation is not that, for the system is already complicated. – F.E. May 11 '14 at 18:22

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