This is part of Obama's commencement speech:

Which brings me to my third point: Facts, evidence, reason, logic, an understanding of science — these are good things. (Applause.) These are qualities you want in people making policy. These are qualities you want to continue to cultivate in yourselves as citizens. (Applause.) That might seem obvious. (Laughter.) That’s why we honor Bill Moyers or Dr. Burnell.

We traditionally have valued those things. But if you were listening to today’s political debate, you might wonder where this strain of anti-intellectualism came from.

In the last sentence, Obama was talking about Donald Trump and was basically saying that Donald Trump doesn't know what he's talking about.

Assuming that the conditional construction of the last sentence represents a hypothetical situation, why did Obama make it sound like a hypothetical situation to describe an apparently real situation?

Also, is this kind of expressing a real situation hypothetically common in English?

  • The hypotheticality (if that's a word) comes from, "if you were listening" because he has no idea whether you were listening or not and further if you were listening, whether you would wonder about the origin of the strain of anti-intellectualism.
    – Jim
    Jun 17, 2016 at 3:24

1 Answer 1


It doesn't represent a hypothetical situation. It is a real situation. If you were listening is the normal past tense verb form with the normal real, unimaginary, "unhypothetical" meaning. He's reporting that he doesn't know if (=whether) you were listening or not. The use of might wonder is the use of a modal auxiliary to express possibility. It is equivalent to it is possible that you wonder.

To express a hypothetical situation in the past, the paradigmatic usage is to use the past perfect if you had listened (or if you had been listening) (which includes the meaning: but in reality you weren't) with both a modal and the perfect have in the other clause: you might have wondered or you might have been wondering. This construction is talking about the irrealis or unreal.

Another example of each, again referring to past time:


If you saw the movie, you might understand it.

(The speaker doesn't know whether you saw the movie or not. But it is not posing a hypothetical situation.)


Unreal (irrealis) / hypothetical:

If you had seen the movie, you might have understood it.

(The speaker here is setting up a hypothetical/contrary-to-fact situation, because he knows you didn't see the movie.)

For more about real and unreal (irrealis), the use of modals and conditional statements, see: Unreality (‘Irrealis’) – Conditionals and Reported Speech – and some Shakespeare!

  • The problem with your use of the word "hypothetical" here is that it does not distinguish between two types of meaning of the word. In one sense both so-called indicative and subjunctive conditionals address hypothetical situations. You may or may not have been listening to the debate, let's hypothesize that you have -->you might wonder where this strain of anti-intellectualism came from. The listening to the debate part is hypothetical, regardless. Dec 30, 2016 at 13:09

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