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Both of these sentences feel wrong to me:

if I am alone, I will go today

if I would be alone, I will go today

By looking up some rules, it seems that using would in the protasis is a common mistake, even if there are a few exceptions of the form if I would [verb], then I would [verb] (but given that the protasis is "more in the past" than the main clause, shouldn't it be if I would [verb], then I will [verb]?).

On the other hand, the common example of conditionals with the verb "to be" are things like "if I am lucky...", "if I am able...", "if god is...". In all of those cases it makes sense to be uncertain: we don't know yet if we are lucky in a certain circumstance, for example.

But it wouldn't make sense to write "if I am alone" right now: I should know already! Either I am alone or I'm not... In which case I should just drop the conditional.

Context: a friend that is learning English wrote

if I be alone, I will go today

I suggested:

"If I would be alone, I will go today" (if there's a chance that you might still go, if your friend might not be with you for the whole day)
"If I were alone, I would've gone today" (for an unreal past situation: you know that you were not alone, and the decision has already been taken)

I can sidestep the issue with something like If I end up being alone, I will go today, but I'm concerned that my previous suggestion to them might've been ungrammatical.

  • Are you using American English? AmE has uses of would which are not valid in British English. – Andrew Leach Sep 30 '18 at 9:31
  • Neither me nor my friend are British nor American, but I think that British English would be slightly more appropriate. If you have links that explain the different usage of would in American English I'd appreciate it. :) – berdario Sep 30 '18 at 9:37
  • If you're not American, don't use would in the protasis. (And even if you want to learn to speak American English, I don't believe this is viewed as acceptable in all regions of the U.S. yet; don't do it. And especially don't do it the way you're suggesting; this is wrong even for those people who do use would in if clauses.) – Peter Shor Sep 30 '18 at 16:51
  • "If I would" is unschooled in AmE speech. And I'd bet the British counterparts of AmE speakers would say it also. – Lambie Sep 30 '18 at 19:52
  • @Lambie: there are parts of the U.S. where if I would is common enough that I believe it's not viewed as unschooled. Educated people from those parts who have gone to college still use it. – Peter Shor Sep 30 '18 at 20:04
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I am going to use my own analysis of English conditionals. I don't have any good references for this.

In English, conditionals either come in irrealis or in realis moods. Both the protasis and the main clause should be in the same mood.

There is a non-standard set of tenses widely used in the U.S. in the protasis for the irrealis. There is really no reason for you to use this; even in some parts of the U.S., it's viewed as a sign of lack of education. In other parts, it's in widespread use, but I believe the standard grammar is also.

In standard English, the choices for the conditional are:

REALIS:

        _______________________________________
        |   Protasis     |   Main Clause      |
        ---------------------------------------
   Past | If I went       | I saw             |
Present | If I go         | I see             |
 Future | If I go         | I will see        |
        ---------------------------------------

IRREALIS:

        _______________________________________
        |   Protasis      |   Main Clause     |
        ---------------------------------------
   Past | If I had gone   | I would have seen |
Present | If I went       | I would see       |
 Future | If I were to go | I would see       |
        ---------------------------------------

NON-STANDARD AmE IRREALIS:

        ____________________________________________
        |   Protasis           |   Main Clause     |
        -------------------------------------------|
   Past | If I would have gone | I would have seen |
Present | If I would go        | I would see       |
 Future | If I were to go      | I would see       |
        --------------------------------------------           

There are some caveats to this classification, such as that there is a very fuzzy relation between the actual time frame and what I'm calling the "future" and the "present", and that we only use what I call the present realis for habitual conditions or eternal truths (If I take the subway to work, I don't have to pay for parking, or if you drop something, it falls).

Your sentence

If I would be alone, I will go today,

combines irrealis and realis, and so is incorrect.

And your sentence

If I were alone, I would've gone today.

combines the present irrealis in the protasis with the past irrealis in the main clause. This is a mixed conditional, meaning the alone part is in the present, but the would have gone is in the past. It's grammatical in some situations. For example, you're traveling with your family, and you want to say that if they were not along, you would have made the choice to go today. But probably what you want to say is one of:

If I were alone, I would go today.
If I had been alone, I would have gone today.

  • I say this: If you accept: If I would go and If I would have gone, you then have to accept an entire list of dialectal features along with it. I really would like to know how this myth got started. It reminds me of French people telling me when I taught English in France that "British English is better than American English". Both have class-based and class-bound dialects.There is nothing wrong with that. People speak like/as they speak. But it shouldn't be hoisted up the flagpole so it flaps in the breeze. – Lambie Sep 30 '18 at 19:57
  • @Lambie: what myth? – Peter Shor Sep 30 '18 at 20:06
  • Do I have to repeat it? The non-standard AmE irrealis myth. Do you seriously think every working class stiff (as one way to put it) in Canada, Ireland, the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa (English-speaking SA) don't have the same non-standard irrealis? When one uses standard forms, one is either born into them or acquires them through education or a concerted effort. – Lambie Sep 30 '18 at 20:17
  • Well ... something has been going on with if I would have in the U.S. since 1980. See this Ngram. But maybe it's just that it's working its way out of the working classes into the class of people who actually write stuff that finds its way into books. – Peter Shor Sep 30 '18 at 20:24
  • Would you believe me if I told you that the very same issue is discussed in Spanish all the time with regard to expressing irrealis utterances? cvc.cervantes.es/foros/leer_asunto1.asp?vCodigo=41262 The people who write books (not referring to novels) are just unschooled (as are many a media pundit). Obviously, the standard form takes a concerted effort (by parents, educators, grammar lovers) to impart it to young 'uns and not using it impoverishes the logical landscape for expressing many ideas. Apart from that Avanti i populo and "let the people speak." – Lambie Oct 1 '18 at 14:17

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