Conditionals seem to be a pretty basic unit of grammar, but this sentence nevertheless got me stuck:

The experts were felt to have little hope of reducing the differences, even if an attempt were made to bring the two parties together.

The use of were seems incorrect here, doesn't it? Given that the sentence is in the past tense, the unreal conditional should read

...an attempt had been made...

If the real conditional is implied, was is required, since, to the best of my knowledge, the use of were with a singular 3rd person is restricted solely to unreal conditionals. I have also come across the were to have been construction, but that doesn't seem to apply in this case.

So, in summation, is it just me, or is the sentence incorrect? I'll be truly grateful for an answer.

  • While I don't exactly disagree with deadrat's analysis, 'even if an attempt had been made' could also be read as the reported form of the experts assertion that an attempt actually was made (i.e., as 'even though...' or 'despite the fact that...'). I question why you don't feel that 'were to have been made' is suitable here, which would seem to me to communicate that the experts discussed the possibility of a meeting, arbitration, peace conference or what have you but that said solution was deemed 'to have little hope of reducing the differences'.
    – Egox
    Mar 10, 2016 at 11:18
  • I think it's fine as is. But if you have to change it, shouldn't you change it to "The experts were felt to have little hope of reducing the differences, even if an attempt is made to bring the two parties together." (or "were to be made") It seems to me that this attempt would naturally lie in the future, so using past perfect is incorrect. For the hypothetical attempt to be in the past, it would need to start with "The experts were felt to have had little hope of reducing the differences ..." Mar 10, 2016 at 12:18

2 Answers 2


I find the passive voice of feel to be a little distracting. Let's transpose the voice to active and use another verb. Try the version below, which I don't think changes the meaning:

The audience thought that the experts have little hope of reducing the differences, even if an attempt were made to bring the two parties together.

Now we can see that this is really a report of past speech, i.e., what the audience was thinking at the time they were listening to the experts:

"These experts have little hope of reducing differences, even if an attempt were made to bring the two parties together."

Now, when these thoughts are reported after the fact, the person doing the reporting may transpose the tenses to represent past time. This is called backshift, and it would look like this:

The audience thought that the experts had little hope of reducing the differences, even if an attempt had been made to bring the two parties together.

But backshift isn't required, especially if the statement reported is still true at the time of the report. In finding the present tense in the report, we understand that the audience still feels this way about the experts.

  • "Were felt" is perfectly valid, though vague out of context (were felt by whom?). In my opinion, this doesn't really answer the question at hand. The OP is asking about that specific sentence. I like your suggestion of "The audience thought" to clarify the subject, but I would caution against over-editing the original example outside the context of the question.
    – Adam Hayes
    Mar 10, 2016 at 8:33
  • @AdamHayes I didn't say that the passive was invalid. I said it was distracting, some of which arises from the garden path created by the meaning of felt as touched. It's clear to me (and the OP may correct me here) that the were in question is not the first one (in the passive construction) but the second (in the subjunctive). If so, the question is really about the necessity of backshifting and the semantics of not backshifting. Note that I didn't edit the original (i.e., the question) at all. I restated the sentence in the answer, with full warning.
    – deadrat
    Mar 10, 2016 at 8:43
  • @AdamHayes I don't mean to imply that caution isn't required in a restatement, but I think this change clarified the issue. Of course, YMMV.
    – deadrat
    Mar 10, 2016 at 8:46
  • @deadrat thank you for the extensive answer. It was indeed the subjunctive 'were' that my question pertained to. It seemed to me that backshift was strictly necessary here, hence my doubts concerning the correctness of using 'were'. Now I see (if I got you right) that the crux of the problem is whether what the sentence says can be related to the situation at the time of speaking. Still, however, it seems from what you suggested that the original sentence was somewhat flawed and needed reshaping.
    – gerseyli
    Mar 10, 2016 at 9:10
  • @gerseyli Yes, you've understood me. I found the original sentence confusing because I felt it obscured the aspect of past reporting. But that's just me.
    – deadrat
    Mar 10, 2016 at 9:16

Your sentence is not complete. The use of "were made" would have been possible there, if you had added something after that; for example if an attempt were made, then the parties would understand each other, this means that attempt has not been made yet but if it were made, then the parties would understand each other.

  • the thing is, the sentence is not by me, so I wished rather to establish whether it was grammatically correct or not than find a way to make changes. It is from a textbook written by a non-native, that's why there might be blunders. Then again, it might be me who's mistaken, but after searching some grammar sites the usage of 'were' still seems wrong in the aforementioned sentence.
    – gerseyli
    Mar 10, 2016 at 8:40
  • @gerseyli The were in "were made" is in the subjunctive because the "even if" makes it clear this is a hypothetical or condition contrary to fact. But many fluent speakers are comfortable dispensing with the subjunctive in cases like this, and they would be comfortable with was made.
    – deadrat
    Mar 10, 2016 at 8:50

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