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By reading The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, I have managed to gain an understanding of remote conditionals. My research has demonstrated that irrealis 'were' is ordinarily used in remote conditionals that are oriented toward the present or future (see Example 1 and 2):

[1] If he were older, he would be allowed entry. [Present Context]

[2] If he were able to revise, he would pass the exam. [Future Context]

Remote conditionals with past orientation commonly use the auxiliary 'have' in the protasis (see Example 3):

[3] If he had been older, he would've been allowed entry. [Past Context]

My question relates to the use of 'were' in the context of the past. Specifically, I was wondering whether the following example (Example 4) is correct:

[4] Were he to acquire the money, he would / would have become a rich man.

You will notice that I have provided options for 'would' and 'would have'. This is because I believe that this is possibly derived from the back-shifted Example 5 (see below), represented in Example 6 (see below):

[5] If he is to acquire the money, he will become a rich man.

[6] If he was to acquire the money, he would become a rich man.

The clear issue in Example 4 seems to be the quasi-modal 'be', which is apparent in 'were to acquire', 'is to acquire', and 'was to acquire'. Using 'had been to acquire' is non-standard, as far as I'm aware, so I'm assuming that there is either an exception that allows the use of 'were' or a rule that prohibits the conditional quasi-modal 'be' in the context of the past.

That said, I repeat my question: can irrealis 'were' be used in the past tense?

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    Backshifting [5] gives if he were to acquire the money, he would become a rich man, which is essentially the same as [4]: were he to acquire the money, he would become a rich man. Backshifting it farther yields unidiomatic sentences. Sep 28, 2022 at 22:23
  • Is this an exceptional case where 'were' can be used in past tense, then? Do you have any citations? Off the top of my head, I can't think of any other example where it is used outside of a present/future remote conditional. It's interesting that you say 'is' is back-shifted to create 'were' when the standard preterite form is 'was'.
    – MJ Ada
    Sep 29, 2022 at 19:59
  • Were is past tense. It's the standard preterite form for all first and second person subjects, and for 3rd person plural. Irrealis were is often replaced with irrealis was; usage around this small sinkhole of English grammar has been thoroughly muddied over the last few centuries. Sep 29, 2022 at 21:59
  • @MJAda: Possibly you should really think about irrealis were and irrealis were to as different tenses. They don't behave in exactly the same way. Sep 29, 2022 at 23:03

1 Answer 1

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Though there is no 'past tense' of irrealis were (CGEL contrasts present, preterite and irrealis as different categories on p.75), for a past situation, it can be used with the perfect.

"The chances are fifty-fifty," said Pownall, "that if this were to have taken three months instead of one, it might have turned out differently." (Time)

If he were to have sold the same shares last week, he would have collected well over $6,000,000. (Time)

If Crown were to have merged its pension plans into PIUMPF, the plan assets would have been combined with the assets of the multiemployer plan, where they could then be used to satisfy the benefit liabilities of participants and beneficiaries other than those from the original Crown plans. (US Supreme Court; BECK, BECK, LIQUIDATING TRUSTEE OF ESTATES OF CROWN VANTAGE, INC., ET AL. v. PACE INTERNATIONAL UNION ET AL.)

It can be supposed that if the total proposal were to have come up to-day it would not have succeeded at any rate without a great public show-down (House of Lords; Mr_John_Edmondson)

As far as example sentence [4], CGEL argues on p.151 that this is not related to a backshifted version of [5] as "quasi-modal be cannot occur in the open construction except with a quite different sense". Rather we would have the below:

If he acquired the money, ... [open - past protasis]

If he were to have acquired the money, ... [remote - past protasis]

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  • This has been a helpful reply. Your examples with 'were to have' and 'modal + have' seem to demonstrate a 'mixed conditional'. The only reason I have yet to accept it as the answer is that I can't find your quotation in my copy of CGEL. The quote you provided does not appear on p.171. Are you looking under section 8.3 of Chapter 3 (The Verb)?
    – MJ Ada
    Oct 2, 2022 at 12:00
  • @MJAda My mistake, it's p.151. Fixed now.
    – DW256
    Oct 3, 2022 at 2:16

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