Does English grammar distinguish between a conditional sentence where the point of view is realistic, but the result is indeterminate; and one where the point of view is hypothetical, but the result is deteriminate?

Example 1: Suppose my neighbor is engaged to be married and we are talking about his up-coming wedding three weeks off.

What would you do if it rained like this on your wedding day?

We expect the wedding to happen as scheduled, but have utterly no opinions about the weather three weeks from now. Is the above sentence grammatically the best, or could it be improved by replacing rained by was raining, was to rain, were raining, or were to rain? Do any of these help to indicate a factual event subject to unpredictable weather?

Example 2: Suppose my neighbor has no plans to marry.

What would you do if you got married on a day like today?

Here, it is the wedding that is hypothetical, and we are specifying the weather. Can this mood be conveyed better with were getting, or were to get?

My searches for info on this yielded nothing. But the examples seem to show that there are sometimes more options in the first case.

Do any dialects purpose or repurpose auxiliary verbs to achieve this distinction?

Is there a pair of statements which applies to each example, but not the other?

  • Don't know if I concur to your use of "aspect", "determinate' and 'indeterminate". You appear to be using 'indeterminate' for 'of unpredictable outcome', whereas (as an aspect in the sense of grammar category) it expresses durance of an action in time.
    – anemone
    Dec 23, 2016 at 10:25
  • Yes, apparently mood is the category that covers probability and determinateness. I will try and get rid of aspect from the question.
    – Phil Sweet
    Dec 23, 2016 at 13:50
  • In both sentences any of the past tenses you've listed work and are basically interchangeable for talking about irrealis or the unreal. We step back from the present tense form to the (simple) past tense form when we talk about something not real, whether it's the rain in 1 or the 'getting married on a day like today' in 2. By the way, both questions (1&2) could be put to a person no matter their status regarding 'a wedding'. Dec 23, 2016 at 14:12
  • If you say What will you do if it rains like this on your wedding day? you are not talking about an unreal situation. You don't know whether it will rain or not, but you're in the realm of the real. However, there is little practical difference between this sentence and sentence 1 with any of the past tense verbs Dec 23, 2016 at 14:15
  • By the way, I really don't understand your question. You can try reading Unreality (‘Irrealis’) – Conditionals and Reported Speech – and some Shakespeare! and see if it helps, both with terminology and execution. Dec 23, 2016 at 14:45

1 Answer 1


Using "if X" already implies that "X" is hypothetical, and there is no normal usage of "if" that is not.

What would you do if it rained like this on your wedding day?

This can be considered a basic form, and "rained" does not indicate past tense but simply the event itself (indefinite time). As one commenter also mentioned, "rains" can be used in exactly the same way (conveying indefinite time).

~ if it were to rain ~

The subjunctive "were" here conveys the consideration of the possibility of raining, though many modern English speakers no longer use the subjunctive.

~ if it were raining ~

This is the subjunctive conveying considering the possibility of raining and situates the hypothetical viewpoint from within a period of ongoing rain. In contrast "were to rain" or "rained" merely situates the viewpoint at a time when it has rained (at least started to rain). There is no added emphasis on the hypothetical nature of the condition.

(invalid) ~ if it { was raining / was to rain } ~

Invalid to my native-speaker ears (but your dialect may vary). In my dialect, "was raining" can only be used for past time with continuous aspect, and "was to rain" can only be used for past time as in:

I could not have foreseen that it was to rain so soon.

Compare with:

I could not possibly foresee that it would rain so soon.

The first describes the point in time at which it rained, which I could not have foreseen to be so soon. The second describes the time before the rain, at which I could not foresee that it was going to rain soon.

What would you do if you got married on a day like today? (when you're not yet married)

As before, "got" is the preterite and is used by many native English speakers today in place of the subjunctive, so this is fine. It applies for hypothetical situations not in the past. If asking about a hypothetical situation in the past, the corresponding phrase to use is "had gotten".

~ if you were to get married ~

This is the subjunctive form that means the same as the above, and for a hypothetical past situation one would use "were to have gotten" instead.

~ if you were getting married ~

This is also valid, but has a different meaning. The earlier two refer to the bare 'point' event of getting married, whereas "were getting married" refers to the 'process' of getting married. It is the same event, but in one it is viewed as an undivided whole (that occurred "on a day like this"), while in the other it is viewed as an ongoing process (proceeding along "on a day like this"). Note that this distinction shows up in the following:

(correct) What would you do if you were getting married and spilled a drink on your suit?

(wrong) What would you do if you were to get married and spilled a drink on your suit?

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