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The divorce won’t affect the money that has already been given to the foundation trust, but the couple may devote less money to it over time than they would have if they had stayed together.

The tail end of the sentence, from a news article, after than describes a contrary-to-fact situation in the past tense (not about the verb form) as the divorce is already set in motion. The author apparently sees this section as a past event, a perspective that I cannot wrap my head around.

But I wonder whether it is possible to describe the situation in the present tense--they would if they stayed together. Indeed, I feel the present tense is more appropriate in this subjunctive sentence.

Could you please explain why the past tense is applied here?

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    I can't see a subjunctive clause. The clause that is complement of "than" is a comparative one,
    – BillJ
    May 6, 2021 at 6:01
  • Adding a 'done' after 'would have' (it's optional) may make things clearer. May 6, 2021 at 14:07
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    By the time you announce in a public forum that you’re getting a divorce, you’re not together any more. What’s so hard about that?
    – Xanne
    May 8, 2021 at 6:22
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    than they will devote to it if they stay together. Present, But yours is in the past tense. And there is no subjunctive.
    – Lambie
    May 8, 2021 at 20:56

2 Answers 2

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Sorting Things Out

The fact that the clause in question is embedded in a comparative construction is a red herring. So let's get that out of the way by creating a new sentence:

(1) They would have devoted more money to it over time if they had stayed together.

Also, it's another red herring to argue over whether to call this sentence "subjunctive" or not. So let's not discuss the terminology but only focus on the verb forms in bold.

Now, the question the OP is asking is how in context--apparently, in the context of the divorce of Bill Gates--does (1) compare to (2)?

(2) They would devote more money to it over time if they stayed together.

I don't quite understand why the OP would call the verb forms in (1) "the past tense" or the verb forms in (2) "the present tense". If anything, had stayed in (1) is not the past tense but the past perfect tense, and both would and stayed in (2) are in their past tense forms.

So I'm afraid that just as the terminology "subjunctive" is a red herring, so are the terminologies "the present tense" and "the past tense" as used by the OP. So let's ignore the terminologies "the present/past tense" as well and simply focus on the verb forms without calling them anything, because those terminologies don't help us answer the question.

Questions

The OP seems to suggest that it is possible to describe the situation of the Gates divorce in (2). In fact, the OP seems to think that (2) is better than (1). And the OP asks if (1) is even a valid construction in context.

Short Answers

I agree with the OP that (2) is also possible in context. But I believe that (1) is the better construction in context because the counterfactual situation is more vividly conveyed in (1) than in (2).

Long Answers

The divorce is being processed, so the "staying together" stopped at some point in the past. Although (2) can convey a counterfactual situation that covers both the present and the future, it cannot describe the past when the divorce process started. Thus, (2) is somewhat limited in describing the counterfactual situation in its entirety.

Now, turning to (1), they had stayed together describes a past counterfactual situation starting from the point where the "staying together" was stopped by the divorce process. But "devoting more money to it over time" has only to be subsequent to "staying together" and does not have to be limited to the past but certainly can include the future.

The verb form "would have + past participle" usually describes a past event, but is not limited to describing a past event, unlike the verb form "had + past participle", which is limited to describing a past event. Assuming that the verb form "would have + past participle" always describes a past event can sometimes lead to confusion.

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Most of that is irrelevant. What's relevant is the following noun phrase (NP), an entire sentence serving as the object of the preposition "than":

"they would have if they had stayed together"

That's a complete sentence that's serving as the object of the preposition, so let's write it as one:

"They would have if they had stayed together."

That could conversely be written as:

If they had stayed together, (then) they would have.

No tense is being employed. This is an irrealis, a conditional sentence in which the main then-clause employs the past conditional mood "would have" and the subordinate if-clause employs the pluperfect subjunctive mood, these two moods being used to talk about an unreal situation in the past, a hypothetical scenario in the past resulting in a conditional outcome in the past.

If the unreal situation weren't in the past, it would be written as:

They would if they stayed together.

That could conversely be written:

If they stayed together, (then) they would.

No tense is being employed in that, either. Just like before, this is an irrealis. The difference is, rather than use the pluperfect subjunctive mood and the past conditional mood, it uses the past subjunctive mood "stayed" and the conditional mood "would."

By the way, "past subjective" is a bit of a misnomer in English since its use in English is to convey unreal situations that are not anchored in any specific time. Since the situation is unreal, it actually has no time. This is as opposed to the prior example that uses the pluperfect subjunctive to anchor an unreal situation in the past, pluperfect subjunctive being different than the past subjunctive since the pluperfect subjunctive actually is anchored in the past.

You say:

The tail end of the sentence, from a news article, after than describes a contrary-to-fact situation in the past tense (not about the verb form) as the divorce is already set in motion. The author apparently sees this section as a past event, a perspective that I cannot wrap my head around.

Here's how you wrap your head around it:

They are already not together, so the contrary-to-fact situation in the past, as you put it, is the unreal past action of staying together, the not-contrary-to-fact situation in the past being the real past action of not staying together.

Since the real past action not staying together is in the past, its alternate unreal past action staying together, the unreal action that didn't happen because that real past action did, is likewise an unreal action in the past, which is what the pluperfect subjunctive mood "had stayed" and the past conditional mood would have is used to convey, their raison d'être.

You also say:

But I wonder whether it is possible to describe the situation in the present tense--they would if they stayed together. Indeed, I feel the present tense is more appropriate in this subjunctive sentence.

Again, to be clear, there is no present tense used in that. It's all past subjunctive mood and conditional mood. As I explained above, that clause could be expressed as you wrote it (i.e., "they would if they stayed together"), but not in the given situation where they are already apart in the present and it's presented as an unreal alternative to the real past action of not staying together. That means what you feel is more appropriate in this subjunctive sentence is not more appropriate or appropriate at all.

You ask:

Could you please explain why the past tense is applied here?

It's not. The pluperfect subjunctive mood and past conditional mood are applied here because it is presenting an unreal hypothetical scenario and outcome of them staying together in the past, which they did not do in the past and so cannot do in the present because to stay together in the present, in the sense conveyed of remain together, would mean they are together in the present and are not not together in the present when we know they are not together in the present as the action of not staying together is the real past action that the unreal past action staying together (i.e., had stayed together) is meant to replace, like in some alternate reality where they had stayed together in the past instead of splitting up in the past.

If something is stopped in the past and not restarted, then you cannot aptly use the verb stay in the present to refer to it being perpetuated as that would contradictorily mean that it either was not stopped or that it was restarted such that it is the current situation you convey you want to perpetuate with "stay."

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  • I agree with most of what you have to say, but I don't agree that you cannot say they would if they stayed together "in the given situation where they are already apart in the present".
    – listeneva
    May 9, 2021 at 3:28
  • How can you possibly think that irrealis sentences don't have tenses?
    – Lambie
    May 9, 2021 at 16:15
  • He says that there is no implication of time in that particular irrealis sentence. I don't think he ever wrote that irrealis sentences can't have tenses if that is what you understood.
    – Pablo GM
    May 9, 2021 at 21:31

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