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I'm wondering about the difference in meaning, if any, between the two sentences in each of the following examples.

Example 1.

a. If he was a serious leader, tackling the debt would have been a pillar of the speech.
(Corpus of Contemporary American English)

b. If he was a serious leader, tackling the debt would be a pillar of the speech.

Example 2.

a. I am sure your father would have been upset if his boss got a gigantic raise and he got nothing.
(Corpus of Contemporary American English)

b. I am sure your father would be upset if his boss got a gigantic raise and he got nothing.

  • 1
    "your father would have been upset" ... this upset (if it happened) is some time in the past. "your father would be upset" ... this upset (if it happens) is now, or maybe even in the future. – GEdgar Sep 1 '14 at 21:38
  • @GEdgar I learned that the past subjunctive mood is used to describe an unreal present or improbable future event. If "your father would have been upset" is in the past, do you think the sentence is in the indicative mood? – ivanhoescott Sep 1 '14 at 22:54
  • If you are looking for a subjunctive mood in 1 a and b, what mood would you call it if they started with if he were a serious leader? I would normally call he was indicative and he were subjunctive. – oerkelens Sep 8 '14 at 9:21
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1a. If he was a serious leader, tackling the debt would have been a pillar of the speech.
1b. If he was a serious leader, tackling the debt would be a pillar of the speech.

2a. I am sure your father would have been upset if his boss got a gigantic raise and he got nothing.
2b. I am sure your father would be upset if his boss got a gigantic raise and he got nothing.

Since this is possibly counterfactual, the question is what's not true, and why not?
There are quite a few contextual questions that need answers, because they might be false.

  • Is he still alive?
    Is he (still) a leader?
    Is he a serious leader?
    Was he a serious leader in the past?
    Was tackling the debt a pillar of the speech?

  • Is your father still alive?
    Is your father still working?
    Did your father get upset?
    Did his boss get a gigantic raise?

And is it really counterfactual in the first place?
All of these can be interpreted as simple hypotheticals. E.g, in a context like this:

We're trying to find out if he was a serious leader; his record is insubstantial, so we're looking at his speeches. Our hypothesis is that if he was a serious leader, insert either clause.

In general, saying your father would be upset at least invites an inference that he's still alive, and that he would be upset if he knew (which he doesn't). But if it's already well-known to all parties that he's dead, he can be spoken of in spiritu as approving (or not), and as having feelings.

Saying your father would have been upset, on the other hand, invites an inference that he's dead, and that he would be upset if he were still alive (which he isn't).

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Yes, one is future, and one is past:

Ted the movie would have been funny, if it was released.

means that, from what we know, it sounded funny but it wasn't released.

Ted the movie would be funny, if we got around to watching it.

means that, from what we know, it sounds funny but we haven't watched it.

  • Tim, I have one question on one of your sentences. Using a comma before "if" in the first sentence seems incorrect. If that clause was used as an introductory one, then the use of comma is correct as per my understanding. Could you please explain whether there is another rule which I have failed to understand here? – Nimal Nonis Sep 2 '14 at 8:45
  • I do overuse comments... It may be that it shouldn't be there... But I don't know, and when reading out loud I naturally pause, so I put one in... – Tim Sep 2 '14 at 8:46
  • "Yes, one is future, and one is past" Are you saying that a. of the example 1 is future and b. of that is past? – ivanhoescott Sep 2 '14 at 20:30
  • No, other way round. – Tim Sep 2 '14 at 20:36
  • Are you saying that a. of the example 1 is not in the subjunctive mood? – ivanhoescott Sep 6 '14 at 3:08
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As others have explained, the first one is past tense and the second one is talking about a future result. What I see further in these sentences is that the speaker is talking about a hypothetical situation. What the sentence "a" means is that he was not a serious leader and tackling the debt was not a pillar of speech.

Please note that when something is not sure, we can use past tense to express it. For an instance,

01) If I were the president of this country, I would make changes in the current constitution. 02) If she owed you money, she would not have spoken to you in such a manner.

  • The first sentences contain a past perfect as well as a past simple. The verbs in the second sentences are also past simple. So I don't think your answer's very clear at the moment. – Araucaria Sep 3 '14 at 15:26
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An easy way to understand these is to shift them from the subjunctive mood (the if world) to a present reality:

Example 1.

Tackling the debt was a pillar of the speech because he is a serious leader. Tackling the debt is a pillar of the speech because he is a serious leader.

Since we think of the speech as having occurred (and not as some timeless entity such as the Bible or a poem), the first is better.

Example 2.

Your father was upset... Your father is upset...

The first describes how your father felt in the past after the raise. The second describes how he currently feels.

It's very common to hear native speakers completely bungling past hypothesis, in the if clause, in the result, or BOTH. I mention this because often the difference between the sentences in the second example is completely ignored by the speaker who is just trying to get a point across and might not realize that they're using improper grammar. Below is an example of a mangled conditional, which is (unfortunately) all too common in the US:

If you would've told me you were gonna be late, I wouldn't show up at seven in the morning!

This should instead be:

If you had told me that you were going to be late, I wouldn't have shown up at seven in the morning.

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"would" is used to express something that doesn't actually happen.

There's always the hanging question "why isn't it happening" when you use "would" and that's why you need another phrase to qualify it, whether in the same sentence or from context established from a previous sentence.

  • I would go, but I'm feeling sick.

I'm not going, the reason why - I'm feeling sick.

  • I have gone to the park.

I was at the park at some time in the past, and I'm implying I'm not there anymore by saying this.

  • I would have gone to the park.

Say just this to someone and the other person is going to immediately ask "Why did you not go to the park?"

  • I would have gone to the park, if I wasn't feeling sick.

I wanted to be at the park at some time in the past but that didn't happen, the reason why that did not happen is because I was feeling sick.

We can't tell from this sentence alone if she is sick now, but it's a possibility. If we want to make sure we contain everything in the past, we can specify the time "I would have gone to the park, if I wasn't feeling sick yesterday" or "I would have gone to the park yesterday, if I wasn't feeling sick."

  • I would go to the park, if I wasn't feeling sick

I want to go to the park now (or soon), the reason why that will not happen is because I am feeling sick.

A conversation might go like this:

A: How were you feeling yesterday?

B: Not very well.

A: Too bad. I went to the park yesterday.

B: I would have gone.

A: You should have, it was fun.

A already knows why B didn't go, so B could get away with not saying why in that sentence.

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The crucial point here is the temporal reference point, as in the case of the indicative mood. In cases (b) the reference point is in the present - hence the sense that the statements may or may not turn out to be true. In cases (a) the reference point is in the past - hence we know already what has and has not occurred.

Very important is also to point out that in cases (b) the tense in "if he was a serious leader" (meaning: "if he were") and "if his boss got" (meaning: "if his boss were to get") has the form of the past tense, but the meaning is in the present.

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