2

What's the difference between 1 and 2? Is 1 a good conditional?

  1. I can't imagine the consequences if the police found out.

  2. I couldn't imagine the consequences if the police found out.

I'd appreciate your help.

1

These are very tricky conditionals, because consequences is itself a proposition which 'hides' a middle term. I've put it in boldface:

  1. I can't imagine the consequences if the police found out.

    In the hypothetical case of the police finding out, there would be consequences; right now, in the real present, I am unable to predict those consequences. OR

    (This could also be understood as In the as yet undetermined case that the police did find out, there { were / will be } consequences; right now, in the real present, I am unable to say what those consequences {were / are / will be}.)

  2. I couldn't imagine the consequences if the police found out.

    In the hypothetical case of the police finding out, there would be consequences; at that time, in the hypothetical future, I would be unable to predict those consequences.

In both of these the middle term contains the modally remote (would) term which satisifes the requirement that the protasis (IF-clause) and apodosis (THEN-clause) must have the same modality. They are quite different from ordinary conditionals, with no middle term:

  1. okI will go to jail if the police find out. and
  2. okI would go to jail if the police found out. but not
  3. I will go to jail if the police found out. —unless, as John Lawler points out, the context calls for found to be understood as a simple past whose factuality is unknown to the speaker, in which case it has indicative modality.

None of 1-4 is necessarily counterfactual; they will all support adding —and they will or —but they won't at the end. 5, if it bears the indicated construction cannot be understood as a counterfactual.

10
  • I'll go to jail if the police found out; if they didn't, I'm a free man. We'll have to see whether they did or not. Jul 19 '15 at 15:36
  • 1
    @JohnLawler Lhude sing goddam. Yes, found could be an ordinary preterite. Fixed. Jul 19 '15 at 15:47
  • If the police find out, I'll go to jail. If the police have found out, I'll go to jail. If the police found out, and I'm not yet in jail, I'm not going to jail.
    – TRomano
    Jul 19 '15 at 15:52
  • @TimRomano Your 3d (supposing it to be true) doesn't establish my #5 as a counterfactual: it establishes it as a false factual. Jul 19 '15 at 16:12
  • @StoneyB: What I meant to imply is that there's no way to build a "conditional bridge" between the simple past and the present. If the police had found out, I would have gone to jail. If the police have found out, I'm going to jail.
    – TRomano
    Jul 19 '15 at 19:40
3

They're both right but they mean different things.

In your first sentence, you currently, while speaking, cannot imagine the consequences. "Can't" is thus the normal indicative mood.

In the second sentence, you're talking about a potential inability to understand in a hypothetical situation in which the police find out, and "couldn't" is conditional.

2
  • Thank you for the input. Is the if-clause part of 1 counterfactual? Does it refer to an unlikely current situation or a possilbe past situation?
    – Apollyon
    Jul 19 '15 at 13:11
  • I don't think it's a counterfactual conditional. But please be aware that some people will say you should use the present tense for "find out". In my experience of British English as spoken by real people, the present and past are used interchangeably in this context.
    – Karasinsky
    Jul 19 '15 at 13:49
1

"I can't imagine the consequences if the police found out." - May be overlooked in the informal conversations or acceptable as speakers who aren't particularly conscious of their language or style speak this way.

On the other hand, "I can't imagine ... if the police find out." is correct and it's more like saying the same 'as a matter of fact' as if it's going to happen and it's only a matter of time.

The second follows the rules for such conditional sentences and puts forward a real hypothesis / assumption.

3
  • More here: english.stackexchange.com/questions/133602/…
    – Sankarane
    Jul 19 '15 at 14:19
  • I don't think 1 is an exmaple of sloppy speech. I took it from an English grammar publised by the reputable publisher Longman.
    – Apollyon
    Jul 19 '15 at 14:54
  • I guess, Longman Grammar documents both spoken and written language grammar and usage. I'd be curious to know what it says about the above sentence.
    – Sankarane
    Jul 19 '15 at 14:57

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