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A new book* is being released with the tagline

If you knew how your love story ends, would you dare to begin?

I'm a native British English speaker, the author is, and I presume whoever wrote that is as well.

It isn't a construction I'm familiar with. I've tried substituting other verbs in, and haven't managed to get a sentence I would say yet. For example

If you knew you catch a cold tomorrow, would you go out?

If you knew a bus hits you in London, would you travel there?

I'd choose to say either

If you knew you were going to catch a cold tomorrow, would you go out?

or

If you knew you caught a cold tomorrow, would you go out?

I can't believe a publishing house would put that on the front cover if it's incorrect though. So what exactly is going on?

*For context, when the main character kisses somebody, she can see how they will die. She doesn't know whether it's the kiss that decides their fate, or she can just see what will happen to them. She stops kissing people. This is obviously a problem when she meets a man she falls in love with.

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    The simple present is fine here. Do you know how the story ends?
    – Lambie
    Nov 9 '21 at 17:51
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    Your question assumes there is something wrong with the construction, and the answers are at pains to explain this assumption. I don't see any problem with grammar, style, or usage. It is very much how native speakers of English often talk.
    – Robusto
    Nov 9 '21 at 20:04
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    The English language is not well conditioned for the peculiar mechanics of fate. Normally, ends demand that a beginning be real. But fate, by its very nature, obviates this restriction. I think the construction only works in the context that the end, whatever it may be, is completely preordained.
    – Phil Sweet
    Nov 10 '21 at 2:19
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    I think "was going to end" sounds worse, and it's not even technically correct (should be "were"). I'm surprised you didn't choose "would end". Nov 10 '21 at 17:25
  • @Lambie would you use the example I've added though? I think it's the same grammatically. Nov 10 '21 at 19:01
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Short answer: I think "ended" would be better, because it appears within a conditional mood clause.

Long answer:

I don't think this is a Literary Present issue, or even really a tense issue. More at issue is the Conditional Mood.

In the Romance languages (probably Germanic languages too, but don't quote me on that), moods are a categorization scheme for verbs separate from the tenses. Rather than telling you about the time of interest, the mood tells you about the purpose of the sentence or clause: to make a factual statement, propose a hypothetical situation, make an order or request, or what have you. Any given verb might have a different form for each tense-mood combination.

English has only retained vestiges of these mood rules, and you've found one of them. The sentence you bring up is a counterfactual conditional (Second Conditional in that first wiki link): It describes something you know isn't the case (but just pretend for a minute). This is in contrast to situations where you don't know the reality (e.g. "If it rains tomorrow") or situations that are the reality sometimes ("When it rains"). Counterfactual conditionals use a past-tense construction, even though the sentence is talking about the present.

So, based on that, it's definitely correct to say "if you knew". The extra wrinkle comes because there's a subordinate clause "How your love story ends". Does a subordinate clause in a conditional-mood context inherit the conditional mood? I haven't seen a rule about it in print anywhere, but it seems to me like it should, since it's still part of the condition. On those grounds, I'd say "how your love story ended" would be better.

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It’s fine; it’s the literary present (also called the historic present or narrative present):

In English grammar, the literary present involves the use of verbs in the present tense when discussing the language, characters, and events in a work of literature.
Source: ThoughtCo.—literary present (verbs)

Like this:

How does the love story end?

Romeo returns to Verona because he believes Juliet is dead. When he arrives at her tomb she appears lifeless, and in his grief he kills himself by drinking poison. Moments later Juliet wakes, and, finding Romeo dead, she plunges his sword into her breast.
Source: Sparknotes—Romeo and Juliet

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  • I'm fine with that, and would do that naturally ("Our story begins in a forest..."). "Now you know how your story ends, will you begin?" also sounds fine to me. I think it's combining it with the "if" and the conditional tense. Nov 10 '21 at 18:52
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    I'm not sure that the literary present is licensed when talking about possible future events. Nov 10 '21 at 19:03
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    @BeginTheBeguine: Are these (all in the subjunctive) acceptable to you? Were you to know how Romeo and Juliet ends, would you read it? If you were to know how Romeo and Juliet ends, would you read it? If you knew how Romeo and Juliet ends, would you read it? They are parallel to your example. Nov 10 '21 at 19:57
  • @EdwinAshworth: With the literary present, the story is already written; there aren’t alternative endings or other possibilities lurking in the future. Nov 10 '21 at 19:59
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    Now OP has clarified, the protagonist is clearly just using a conditional sentence. Whether the sentence is uttered in a book, in an academic paper, or round the breakfast table, it's just a conditional. The literary present is not an option. Nov 11 '21 at 13:25
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A lot to unpack here! Let's start with the cheap shots:

I can't believe a publishing house would put that on the front cover if it's incorrect.

Oh... I would. I would indeed.

Okay, now that I've got that out of my system: I think the friction comes from the intersection of narrative and reality. Or, to put it less abstrusely: stories have their own "present." We're all familiar with literary present tense, in which we can say "Hamlet kills Polonius," without having to quibble with the fact that he first killed him around 1600. Gilgamesh and Ted Lasso share an abstracted present as we sit outside of their timelines.

It is this, really, that lets "how the story ends" become enshrined as a phrase of its own (just Google it and you find the titles and lyrics of at least a dozen songs). So to my view, "... how your love story ends" is simply literary present.

The friction you're feeling is because the hypothetical challenge positions you, the reader, as a character in the narrative. To the Hamlet of Act II, "what's past is prologue" (to mix references). The character within the narrative is conscious only of the linear flow of time. This sentence positions us dually as literary critic, knowing "the story," and as an agent within it, poised to enter the linear stream. This gives us a sort of Cubist view of both the timeless and the timed at once, thus your cognitive dissonance. "If you knew, Mr. Hamlet—wait, I mean know?—that it was—is—will be Polonius behind the curtain, would you/will you/won't you—oh dear..." A certain degree of verb-tense confusion is inherent in the premise of the challenge, knowing "how the story ends" when you have still not "begun"—we are to know the end from before the beginning?

So yes, in my view, the literary present saves us from a Star-Trek level of confusion about how the timeline interacts with itself. In fact, I could see using it even in a simpler conditional construction in which we aren't meta-actors:

If you knew how a book ends, would you choose to begin it?

Yes, this strains grammaticality, but I would defend it because Hamlet (spoilers) ends tragically, whether you conditionally "knew" it or not going in. So even though your knowledge is conditional, and you would normally pair it with a past tense, the literary present is unaffected by your condition.


Is the way it's written acceptable?

Well, obviously it was acceptable to the publishers, and it clearly got its point across. This treads into subjective territory, but to my mind, the "punchiness" of the streamlined version is not a mere gimmick, but improves the conveyance of the meaning.

If you knew how your love story ends, would you dare to begin?

If you knew how your love story were going to end, would you dare to begin it?

There's certainly a pleasing assonance in "ends ... begin," which is lost if we stick on an object, "it." And the published version even (surely accidentally) conforms to an anapest meter, while any past tense must disrupt the unconscious scansion.

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  • I would argue that it’s simply the literary present at play here. If you knew is in the subjunctive, and we would normally backshift subsequent verbs in the clause: If you knew you were going to be queen, would you buy an ermine stole? Never If you knew you are going to be queen, would you buy an ermine stole? Compare If you knew how your love story ends, would you dare to begin? and If you knew how your class ended, would you dare to begin? It’s the “story” that triggers the literary present and that licenses no backshifting. Nov 9 '21 at 19:19
  • @TinfoilHat Right, I think we were both writing the same answer at the same time, just I was wordier about it! Nov 10 '21 at 1:35
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If you knew

This is the present subjunctive, used for counterfactuals and hypotheticals. For example, “If I ran the zoo,” “I wish you did,” or or “If I were you.” (In contemporary, especially informal, English, you’re more likely to hear “If I was” than “if I were.”)

how your love story ends,

This could be read either as a future subjunctive or a literary present. That is, either it’s using the present tense to make something you anticipate feel emotionally immediate, or it’s a hypothetical event in the possible future, like “If I die before I wake,” or “I told my daughter, she comes home by nine o’clock, or she isn’t going to another one.”

I would probably have written, in formal English, “how your love story would end,” but other constructions, such as, “how your love story will end,” are valid too.

would you dare to begin?

This is conditional mood. The author might have avoided “would” in the middle clause, to prevent confusion between two different clauses in the conditional mood, and make it clearer that only this final clause is the result of the “if” clause.

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I would see this as parallel with "If you knew how they make hot dogs, you wouldn't eat them" which is grammatical and idiomatic. "Knew" is not past tense, I guess it's subjunctive, as in "If I were a rich man".

I do have an initial sense that there's a missing "it" at the end, an object reference for "begin". But it's not mandatory and as prose, the sentence is much nicer without it, trailing off with the soft "begins" instead of slamming shut with the hard "it".

I would say that as a tag line, it's remarkably long. Perhaps it's a subtle caution that this work is a long-attention-span undertaking, or maybe Brits just tolerate more words in a row than we do over here. Likely the North American edition will use something like "Do ya really wanna know?".

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I agree that "ends" is ok. "I knew that would happen" is normal sequence of tenses in indirect question, but (a) "knew" here is not past tense, but subjunctive, (b) this is a question about a work of literature (the idea that the question might be self-referential is interesting, but cannot be used to rule out a possibility allowed by the fact that this is a blurb on the cover of a book).

I have no idea whether (a) affects things one way or the other, but for (b) the question becomes "is the power of the literary present so timeless, so powerful, that it can break through the rules for the normal sequence of tenses?

Is this ok: "If you knew that Romeo dies at the end, would you start the play?" I would say yes.

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