CGEL* has this on page 149:

The open conditional is the default type, while remote conditionals have the following properties:

[3] i Subordinate clause: must contain a preterite (or irrealis were) expressing modal remoteness.

ii Matrix clause: must contain a modal auxiliary, in the preterite if possible.[Footnote]

Footnote: ‘If possible’ in [ii] allows for the occurrence in the present tense of those modals like must which have no preterite form (cf. §6.2.1).

In CGEL's terminology, an "open conditional" refers to a conditional construction (If P, then Q) where P and Q are presented as an open possibility; a "remote conditional" refers to a conditional construction where P and Q are presented as a remote possibility.

What CGEL says above is, in "If P, then Q" in a "remote conditional" type, Q can contain the modal must. But I can't seem to find a remote conditional example where Q has the modal must.

Unfortunately, CGEL's §6.2.1 fails to show any example of a remote conditional whose Q contains the modal must.

Can anyone think of a remote conditional example whose Q contains the modal must?

*The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language

  • See also: Linguistics
    – Kris
    Commented Jul 27, 2018 at 11:48
  • Sorry, JK2, and instead of telling us what you can't find, could you bring yourself to post what you did find, and what conclusions that led you to? That is to say, it's your responsibility to explain precisely what you're posting about, rather than anyone else's to guess what you might be thinking. Commented Aug 4, 2018 at 20:23
  • 1
    @RobbieGoodwin How much more precise can I possibly get than to ask this specific question? "Can anyone think of a remote conditional example whose Q contains the modal must?"
    – JK2
    Commented Aug 4, 2018 at 22:02
  • Maybe I don't understand the question, but what's wrong with "If he broke it then he must fix it" or "If he saw it then he must have been there"? I notice you asked the same question at WordReference. Would you add the same examples to the question here please?
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Aug 5, 2018 at 6:19
  • @CJDennis In your examples, I think 'broke' and 'saw' refer to a past time. So it's not a remote conditional as defined in CGEL.
    – JK2
    Commented Aug 5, 2018 at 7:00

3 Answers 3


I can find a few such uses online. For example:

His first case involved the ghostly return of three brothers, who in their youth had made a pact—if one of them were to die, they must return in the form of an ogre, to care for the others. (2012)

and also

If he were to survive, he must do something. (2002)

  • Is the first one written in 1940 and the second in 1886? If so, both are before or during the Second World War and thus would not qualify as Present-day English as defined by CGEL. In any case, do you find the use of 'must' in either quote natural?
    – JK2
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 2:40
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    @JK2: The first one was written in 2012. It's describing a comic published in 1940, but the sentence appears to be very recent. I can't find any earlier hits of it in Google Books, and if it were from 1940, it wouldn't contain the singular they (surely he would have been used for the brother who returned). Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 2:46
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    The second does indeed appear to be from the 19th century. Replacing it with a 2002 reference. Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 2:47
  • 1
    Do I find them natural? I probably wouldn't have written either of them that way, but they don't strike me as ungrammatical or unusual. If you Google "were to survive, he/she/they/it must" you get a number of similar quotes, so a number of people must find it natural. Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 3:06
  • I see what you're saying. Thanks for unearthing those examples. That said, is it a coincidence that both examples have "were to" in P? Or in the Present-day English, is the use of 'must' in Q allowed only when P has 'were to'? Would other random remote conditional constructions with 'must' in Q not strike you as ungrammatical or unusual? (e.g.: If he were here, he must be upstairs.)
    – JK2
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 3:40

First, I have no idea how ‘must’ found its way into the CGEL equation, called a ‘modal’. It is indeed often so called, but as an abbreviation for “modal or secondary auxiliary’ [Oxford English Grammar 4.29 (page 153)].

The modals are followed by an infinitive, e.g. can play. All the auxiliaries are used as operators for negation, interrogation, emphasis and abbreviation.

What is clear is that the use of this secondary modal auxiliary has nothing to do with the rules for conditionals.

1). The remoteness of the ‘remote’ conditional is determined by the protasis.

2) ‘Default’ is an odd way of describing the ‘open’ conditional. If you are teaching conditionals formally to non-native learners, open conditionals are the place to start, because they are the simpler.

3) The introduction of ‘must’, described correctly but misleadingly as modal, confuses the issue. The key identifying feature of a remote condition is the use of verbs in a modal form.

The issue, therefore, is nothing to do with the fact that ‘must’ is a sort of modal. What prevents that verb from appearing in either part of a remote conditional is that it only has one form: ‘must’. It has neither tense nor mode.

So take the following open conditional.

If you trust that swindler, you must be even stupider than I think .

How does that become a remote conditional? You cannot use ‘would must’: there is no such form of ‘must’. You might work round it and say..

It would be the case that you must be ..


So we have to think out not the particular word, but the meaning and what we are trying to express by using it. We must look for an equivalent to ‘must’ that can be used modally. The obvious answer is that ‘I have to’ does the same job as ‘I must’. So:

If you trusted (or were to trust) that swindler, you would have to be even stupider than I think.

So the answer is that you cannot use the word must in the apodosis of a remote conditional, but there is at least one way saying the equivalent.

Sometimes, in language, flexibility is essential.

  • 2
    I think it's a non-issue whether to call 'must' a modal or something else, although I don't think there's any thing wrong with calling 'must' a modal as CGEL did. The issue here is whether 'must' can be used in the apodosis of the remote conditional, and CGEL clearly stipulates that it can. And your conclusion is that it cannot, which inevitably means that CGEL made a mistake in the quoted portion. Is that what you're saying?
    – JK2
    Commented Jul 29, 2018 at 14:29
  • @JK2 I am not sure if I allowed to respond, having just been politely shifted to ‘chat’ for a two-way discussion. Yes, I do disagree with CGEL. But I should add that ‘must’ COULD be used in the apodosis of a remote contortions, and we should probably understand, just as we should understand ‘was’ even though strictly it ought to be ‘were’. I have struggled in vain to think of a convincing example. Hamlet: “If my father were really standing in front of me now, then I must revise my entire system of metaphysics.”. That might (as with was) be passable because able to be understood.
    – Tuffy
    Commented Jul 29, 2018 at 15:17
  • CGEL does not cover Early Modern English (e.g., the works of William Shakespeare and the King James Bible); it only covers the most recent part of Modern English, i.e., "Present-day English", as defined in CGEL as English "since the Second World War". Assuming that we're discussing Present-day English, there's no comparing the use of 'was' (instead of 'were') in the protasis of the remote conditional on the one hand and the use of 'must' in the apodosis of the remote conditional on the other. In Present-day English, the former is very productive but the latter is few and far between.
    – JK2
    Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 3:42
  • 1
    I don't really follow the logic here at all. Remote conditionals don't need to use would; they can use could and might: If you finished medical school, you could make a lot of money. If we went to better restaurants, we might not get food poisoning. We don't need to say would can or would may. So why can't we use must here? Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 0:59

Can the modal 'must' be used in the apodosis of a remote conditional?

Can anyone think of a remote conditional example whose Q [apodosis] contains the modal must?

An example could include, "If we bump into Steve, then we must be at the wrong convention."

In the example above, it's not likely that they'll bump into Steve (a remote possibility), but if they do, then it's a sure-fire (must) indication that they cannot be at the correct convention, since (in this example) it is extremely unlikely that Steve would be present at the correct convention.

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    In the CGEL's description of the remote conditional, it should be bumped in your example in order for the example to qualify as a remote conditional.
    – JK2
    Commented Jul 27, 2018 at 10:31
  • Pace CGEL, the example is not by any stretch a remote conditional. Remoteness is determined by the grammar of the protasis. The protasis refers to the future, so the apodosis must also be so. There is a future for ‘must’: it is “we shall have to be at the wrong convention.”. If the apodosis has to have ‘must’ then the protasis must refer to the present: “If we haven’t bumped into Steve (yet) ...”
    – Tuffy
    Commented Jul 27, 2018 at 13:24
  • @Tuffy we are in violent agreement. The apodosis is in the future, congugated in the "present" tense. Check out link pasted at end - a good graphic. In their example, "I eat" [in my case, must as a modality not tense] can be semantically timeless. google.com/…
    – tidbertum
    Commented Jul 27, 2018 at 16:08

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