The following phrase is part of a narrative in past tense. My mind has been going in circles around it, so any help would be appreciated.

  • He sighed and replied quickly, as if he had had only a few seconds' time before John changed his mind

I'm not sure about the items marked with bold font, above. Something feels wrong. Any input?

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    "as if he had" is conditional. "as if he had had" is past conditional. – TrevorD May 20 '16 at 16:03
  • Sounds off to me, since if the hypothetical "few seconds" were to have existed at all, they wouldn't meaningfully have preceded his sighing and replying quickly. The pluperfect construction would make more sense in, say, He jabbered excitedly, as if he had had a few drinks before our meeting. – FumbleFingers May 20 '16 at 16:07

I've given he a name to make for easier reference:

Bob sighed and replied quickly, as if he had had only a few seconds' time before John changed his mind.

This sentence is not wrong but the following might be better:

  • Bob sighed and replied quickly, as if he had only a few seconds before John would change his mind.

The past perfect in the original example makes it sound as if Bob might have already had the seconds. But in this actual situation these seconds are about to occur, they haven't occurred already. I think would representing a future in the past is better than changed here. It clearly orientates the notional sequence of events. Lastly, we do not really need the word time in this sentence. It is a bit confusing because we expect to see time used this way in preposition phrases using the preposition in, where it represents a point in time, not a period:

  • I'll phone you in a few minutes time.

Grammar note:

This sentence isn't a conditional. The Adjunct as if he had ... mind is an Adjunct of comparison, not a conditional Adjunct. Notice that the truth of the main clause Bob sighed and replied quickly does not depend in any sense on the as if clause being true. We can compare it with:

- Bob sighed and replied quickly if his interrogators asked him embarrassing questions.

In the sentence above we get the impression that Bob's sighing and answering is caused by the interrogators. The questions are a precondition for the sighing. This is very different from the Original Poster's sentence.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Huddleston & Pullum, 2002) classify as if as a compound preposition. CaGEL notes that when the main clause is present tense, the verb forms in the as if clause may be backshifted (p 1152). In other words we may see the forms we see in if-clauses in so-called remote conditionals:

- She always looks at me as if she hated me. (as if- clause as comparative Adjunct)

- She wouldn't be so nice to me if she hated me. (if-clause as conditional Adjunct)

Notice here that the main clause must have would in the remote conditional.

Now, although we often see a modally remote past simple in as if-clauses when the matrix (main clause) verb is present simple, we only very rarely see modally remote past perfects in as if-clauses, when the matrix verb is past simple (CaGEL, p. 1153). Very often it is not possible:

- She looked relaxed, as if she skated every day.

- She looked relaxed, as if she'd skated every day.

In the second sentence above we can only understand as if she'd skated every day to refer to an earlier time, before the time we are actually talking about. It cannot be interpreted similarly to the first example. It cannot refer to general time at the time that she looked relaxed.

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    I am watching Bob signing right at this moment and talking on the phone to let the other party know the news. "Bob is signing now as if he had only a few seconds before John changes his mind". Do we need to use "has" instead of "had" in the sentence? – user140086 May 20 '16 at 16:35
  • @Rathony just made the point I was about to make :P Although the example resonates better (and indeed, I thought of it myself), something feels odd about using past tense & would in the if-clause, since it is past conditional. Or is it so that I am misconstruing the if-clause as conditional, while it actually isn't? – Digital Dracula May 20 '16 at 16:40
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    Actually, I think I now realized what Araucaria meant by "the notional sequence of events". I'm marking this as the accepted reply. Thanks everyone – Digital Dracula May 20 '16 at 16:48
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    @Rathony, Digital Dracula, I've added a grammar note in case it is useful. – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 21 '16 at 7:35
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    @Rathony ... So for example "She looked at me as if I was a monster" is just as natural, if not more so, than "She looked at me as if I'd been a monster". English is weird! – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 21 '16 at 7:53

As a general bit of writing advice, rather than grammar discussion; if a sentence won't settle, just rewrite the damned thing, eg;

He sighed, but feeling rushed, he replied before John changed his mind.

It's not the same sense, but no-one else cares what you originally wrote, so just crack on with more of your manuscript ;)

  • That's probably what I will ultimately do, but now I got curious about this :) – Digital Dracula May 20 '16 at 16:43
  • Then this site may not be great for your novel! Back to the word mines! :) – Steve Cooper May 20 '16 at 21:52

Feels alright; here's how I see the two uses

"if he had" would feel normal with any other verb;

if he had seen the ball, he would have ducked.

the second "had" comes because you "have time";

He has a few seconds before...

so it's ok to move that into the past tense and conbine it with the first, 'conditional had.'

  • I suppose "if he had see" is a typo for "if he had seen". – alephzero May 20 '16 at 21:00
  • @alephzero thank you, yes. It was a typo. Corrected. – Steve Cooper May 20 '16 at 21:05

I'm pretty sure that the tense used with "replied" should match that of the conditional, at least for the events described in this sentence.

So, the corrected sentence would read:

He sighed and replied quickly, as if he had only a few seconds' time before John changed his mind.

In other tenses:

He sighs and replies quickly, as if he has has only a few seconds' time before John changes his mind.

He had sighed and replied quickly, as if he had had only a few seconds' time before John would change his mind.

All of this ignores the underlying issue that John can't seem to make a decision.

  • Your present-tense sentence (#2) doesn't read right to me -- I think I'd drop the second has. Sentence #1 seems valid, too -- a single 'had' seems acceptable. – Steve Cooper May 20 '16 at 21:08

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