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Is a protasis with a verb in the past tense necessarily interpreted as a hypothetical condition when followed by an apodosis with "would have" + past participle?

For example, is the sentence

If John was there, he would have seen the accident.

inappropriate after the following situation?

You've just heard that John was in a place at a time yesterday. You infer that there is a possibility that John saw the accident you know happened nearby at about the same time.

I asked this question in ELL, but have not got conclusive answers.

  • Upvote for protasis/apodosis. Inappropriateness is gauged by the formality of the statement. In formal writing, use "If John had been there, he would have seen the accident." Would expresses the aspect of uncertainty, so the if clause is hypothetical. – deadrat Dec 6 '15 at 6:12
  • I added some tags and made your title a bit shorter. If you prefer the old title, just roll it back! :-) – Araucaria Dec 6 '15 at 14:56
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First let's translate some of the terms that I'm going to use, because there's many different variants:

  • Consequent: also called the apodosis or result clause
  • Antecedent: also called the protasis or if-clause
  • Hypothetical: also termed remote or subjunctive or imaginary
  • Non-hypothetical: also termed open or indicative or real

The Original Poster's Question

It is perfectly possible to have a past tense non-hypothetical antecedent with a hypothetical consequent, in just the same way that we can have a present tense non-hypothetical antecedent with a hypothetical consequent. Consider the following:

  • If he's Bob, you would be Mike.
  • If she left at four, she would have arrived by now.

The first has a non-hypothetical present tense antecedent and a hypothetical consequent. The second has a past simple non-hypothetical antecedent and a hypothetical consequent.

The Original Poster's example is therefore perfectly readable as a conditional with a non-hypothetical antecedent. The antecedent Bob was there uses tense in the normal way and therefore indicates a proposition entertained as a fact. The consequent uses a past perfect construction to indicate a situation where we would otherwise expect the past simple. This backshifting of tense indicates a hypothetical consequent. It represents a logical deduction on the part of the speaker:

  • If John was there, he would have seen the accident.
  • If you don't mind, the problem with this explanation is 1. If clause should be also hypothetical to indicate subjunctive. The reason he didn't see the accident was that Jon was not there. "If John was there, he must have seen the accident" might work, but the above sentence doesn't seem to work. 2. Using the example of "If he's Bob, you would be Mike" to explain about the other sentence is not appropriate as there seems to be no grammatical similarity considering the usage of would as a modal verb to indicate possibility. The first one might not not related with the subjunctive mood. – user140086 Dec 6 '15 at 15:21
  • Cf. Definite past: If John was there, he saw the accident. If John was there, he must have seen the accident. If John was there, he will have (he’ll’ve) seen the accident. Hypothetical past: If John were there, he would have (he’d’ve) seen the accident. If John had been there, he would have (he’d’ve) seen the accident. – tchrist Dec 6 '15 at 15:25
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    @Rathony I never mind some friendly debate! Well, the thing is that "subjunctive" or "backshifted" conditionals don't indicate that something isn't true, or that it's unlikely. That's a widespread myth promulgated by EFL books and language teachers. So there's no reason to think that the would is different in any of these conditionals (there are other meanings of would, but this is not a case where there are different meanings). Also, certainly in my English, this sentence is perfectly grammatical. :) – Araucaria Dec 6 '15 at 15:44

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