What is the right tense to describe an event that might have occured, be occuring or occur in the future, if (not) for something that happened in the past?

Unike, in the examples, which anchor the event to:

If you hadn't killed him, he would have killed countless innocents.
(past, i.e. his killing spree would have started in the past and possibly ended by now)

If you hadn't killed him, he would be killing countless innocents now.
(present i.e. his killing spree started before and would be occurring currently)

I'm interested in a form that does not suggest the time in relation to current moment, but only in relation to the moment of when the condition ocurred.

Edit: Would this simple form be what I need?

If you hadn't killed him, he would kill countless innocents.

Does this leave the event/period as future relative to the past event, but unanchored to the present moment of time as intended? Or am I understanding it wrongly?


5 Answers 5



If I understand you, you are asking for a construction which expresses contingent killing stretching from the 'reference point', where the murderer was in fact killed to some indefinite point—which with respect to the time of utterance might be 'now' 'before now' or 'after now' but with respect to the reference point must be 'after then'.

I suggest:

If you hadn't killed him he would have gone on to kill countless innocents.

Or, possibly, if you want a more emphatically progressive sense:

If you hadn't killed him he would have gone on killing until countless innocents had died.

The second one loses your 'kill countless innocents' construction; but I'm uncomfortable with that in a progressive construction. I think this is because a serial killer's victims are only cumulatively (not continuously) countless, in either the literal or the hyperbolic sense of that word.


I don't think the first sentence necessarily means that his killing spree would have ended by now but that he would have killed countless innocents before his arrest (which would have put a stop to his killing spree) or death.

The second sentence implies that he would be alive and killing at the moment the sentence was uttered.

Which tense you use depends on context.

I'd use the first sentence to talk about something that happened a long time ago as well as something that just happened. It seems to be a reassurance that killing the guy was a service to everyone: "You did the right thing and a good thing. Don't feel guilty about it."


I'd use the second sentence regardless of when the killing occurred. The point of the sentence seems to be this: "If you hadn't killed him, we'd never have known he was a mass murderer and wouldn't have been able to capture him, so he'd (still) be killing innocent people right now." This seems to imply that the killing occurred a long time ago (more than a year). [EDIT: Put still in parentheses to indicate that it's time-dependent -- to be used if the killing occurred long ago but not to be used if it occurred very recently.]

  • Isn't this essentially restating what the OP said? Commented Oct 3, 2012 at 12:03
  • yes, neither of the sentences I gave works for me, I gave them as examples of context, where my question applies and how the presented approaches don't quite work for me.
    – SF.
    Commented Oct 3, 2012 at 12:42
  • @Roaring Fish: No. I disagreed with the OP's interpretation of the first sentence. Andrew Leach's edit changed the formatting, but it didn't clarify the OP's hard-to-understand question: It's contradictory because he says we don't know when the effect would occur, but he's already said the killing spree would be over by now in S1 and that the killer would be killing now in S2. IOW, it either would already have happened or it would now be happening. Unclear writing: doesn't say what the OP means & doesn't mean what the OP says, despite his comment.
    – user21497
    Commented Oct 3, 2012 at 12:50
  • @Roaring Fish: Thank you for asking the question. It forced me to reread the OP's question and edit my answer. I still don't understand the OP's question: It doesn't work for me. I don't think that I answered it or that Ronda Lewis answered it, and I'm wondering why Andrew Leach didn't give it a shot. I'll wager that he too thought it wasn't a clear and understandable question.
    – user21497
    Commented Oct 3, 2012 at 13:09
  • I too don't really understand the question, which is why I haven't tried to answer it. he seems to be asking for an 'indefinite time' conditional, which would suggest present simple in the result clause ("if you hadn't killed him, he would kill") but I can't imagine why anyone would use such a sentence. Commented Oct 3, 2012 at 13:45

After one pass, I do not find anyone has suggested 'have been' for the continuous.

If you hadn't killed him, he would have been killing countless innocents.
i.e., his killing spree would be occurring ever since (and so also, currently).

Anything missing here?

  • "If you hadn't killed him, he would have been killing countless innocents," sounds like he would have been killing them at the same time as you killed him. Commented Oct 3, 2012 at 19:45
  • @PeterShor Yes, includes that possibility.
    – Kris
    Commented Oct 4, 2012 at 7:03
  1. If you hadn't killed him, he would have killed countless innocents.
  2. If you hadn't killed him, he would be killing countless innocents now.

in both of these examples, the if clause indicates the man is dead. The use of if + the past perfect shows we are speaking about a hypothetical case.

In the first sentence, "would have killed" shows the speaker considering a period of time that preceeds his speech act (the above sentence) and counts up a tally that stops at the moment of speech.

In the second example, "would be killing" includes the moment of speech and allows the idea that the killing would continue beyond that moment. The choice of this form is not just a question of time and number, however. It adds a degree of emotional intensity (a stronger value judgement) by not allowing a limiting number (because time is "held open").

  • The hypothetical is that the now-dead man would have killed or would now be killing "countless innocents". Ergo, it would have been clearer to say, "we are speaking about hypothetical killings of countless innocents". But I don't think it answers the OP's question, which, I contend, is contradictory and unclear. Do you think the OP's question is clear and understandable? Just curious.
    – user21497
    Commented Oct 3, 2012 at 13:02

My opinion is that either of the first two sentences works fine, and since there's no way of knowing whether he'd still be killing people in this hypothetical situation, you can use whichever one you want. The third sounds terrible

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