Please ignore the factual accuracy of this sentence and focus on the tenses used.

If the Mayans were wrong to end the calendar on Dec. 20, 2012, we'll use your donation to fund 2013 programming.

I’d like to know:

  1. if it is correct, and

  2. what it would be called.

  • 1
    I'd prefer: "If the Mayans prove to have been wrong to say that the world will end on Dec. 20, 2012, we'll use your donation to fund 2013 programming." Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 21:46
  • I'd prefer: "If the Mayans were wrong about December 21st, we'll user your donation to fund 2013 programming."
    – Jim
    Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 23:06

4 Answers 4


It seems to me that FumbleFingers is right to say that this is a simple past conditional. I think the basic flaw in the original sentence is the use of the present infinitive in the conditional clause, which is awkward at best, and very likely a grammatical error. The sentence consists of a main independent clause: "We'll use your donation to fund 2013 programming" [MC], coupled with a subordinate dependent clause expressing condition, and that subordinate clause is really two subordinate clauses in disguise. If the sentence is reconstructed for purposes of evaluation, we could have alternatives like:

  1. [MC], if [events show in the future] that the Myans were wrong [in the past] when they ended [in the past] the calendar on...
  2. [MC], if the Mayans wrongly ended the calendar... [condition stated only in terms of past]
  3. [MC], if the calendar doesn't end on ... [condition stated only in terms of future]

I think this shows that the original conditional subordinate clause tries to state two events with different temporal states: 1) If events show [in the future], and 2) that the Mayans wrongly ended the calendar [in the past]. The first is stated implicitly, as E. Ashworth pointed out, the second explicitly. Using the present infinitive makes a muddle of this by appearing to inject another temporal state. I conclude that in the original construction the past infinitive "to have ended" is gramatically required, but that the sentence would still be stylistically awkward even with that change made.

Oh, and I think the main verb were in the subordinate clause is properly in the subjunctive mood, expressing uncertainty. Indeed, part of the problem with the sentence is that one way to look at the way were is being used here is as a future subjunctive, elliptically expressed: "If the Mayans were shown to have been wrong...." This reading gives the sense of an uncertain state to be resolved in the future. The question of mood here is, IMHO, a red herring. The real issue is proper representation of the temporal states.

  • It feels a bit strange for me to be upvoting both alternative answers (and at the same time letting my own answer stand), but there it is. I particularly agree with your last sentence about the real issue - but in the final analysis, I think there's an inherent awkwardness (in English, at least) with the semantics / "temporality" of the statement as a whole (which is probably quite apposite, since the crux of the conditional clause turns on whether or not time turns out to whatever it was previously thought to be! :) Commented Dec 8, 2012 at 15:07

This is an syntactically unexceptionable Conditional sentence of the type sometimes called the first conditional, which is used

to express a hypothetical condition that is potentially true, but not yet verified. The conditional clause is in the present or past tense and refers to a state or event in the past. The result can be in the past, present, or future. —Wikipedia

FumbleFingers' identification of a simple past in the conditional clause (protasis) is entirely correct. If the Mayans were ... cannot possibly be subjunctive, because the result clause (apodosis) is cast in the indicative. This is clearer if we substitute a third-person singular subject in the protasis:

✱If Tortugero Monument 6 were wrong, (then) we'll use &c is not English.

The meaning must be

If Tortugero Monument 6 was wrong, (then) we'll use &c

As for recasting to end into the “past infinitive” construction, which Borstal urges and FumbleFingers appears tentatively ready to accept:

This construction might better be called the perfect infinitive, since it is the infinitive of a perfect construction. Its function is to define its “Event” time as prior to some other “Reference” time — which may or may not the same as “Speech” time.

In the case at hand, R-time is not S-time but the past time at which the Maya were wrong. Casting E-time —the time when the Maya made their prediction—into the perfect would imply that they did not become wrong until some time after the prediction. This is absurd: the wrongness inhered in the prediction itself, the Maya became wrong simultaneously with making the prediction and continued to be wrong as long as they maintained the prediction. E-time and R-time are identical, and it is proper to cast E-time into the “present infinitive”, which collocates E-time and R-time:

You were wrong to say X yesterday.
You are wrong to say X today.
You will still be wrong to say X tomorrow.

EDIT: (in addition to adding the important qualifier syntactically to my first sentence):
FumbleFingers points out that the straightforward syntax of this construction is in this instance profoundly confused by the semantic implications of the content, and I think he is right. The discourse itself is about time—more, it is about a discourse about time. And verifying the hypothetical would in effect render meaningless not only the hypothetical itself but also very system of tensual (is that a word?) reference in which it is expressed. Dealing with those semantics blurs any sense of stability in the syntax.

  • I can't say I disagree with anything here, except perhaps your choice of the word unexceptionable. I'm sure that technically speaking it really is "just" a first conditional. But the specific condition being referenced does seem rather awkward to express in English. It's simultaneously a past status (that can't be evaluated until the future), and a future status (the result of that future evaluation). Commented Dec 8, 2012 at 15:24
  • @FumbleFingers We do it all the time. "This morning my son persuaded me to put my savings on the Rams to win the Super Bowl. If he was right, I will retire in March; if he was wrong, I will be on the streets in March." Commented Dec 9, 2012 at 2:03
  • I don't think I'd often phrase such situations like that (I'd use to "If he is [found to be] right [now/in the future]"). But don't forget OP's example is concerned with the matter of being right about when "time" ends, an extra twist that does rather tax the temporal lobes. Which as it says there are central to language and semantics (and, if the name is anything to go by, temporality :) Commented Dec 9, 2012 at 3:44
  • @FumbleFingers Yes. The crux is "end the calendar on ... 2012" which is quite alright by itself but has about four levels of possible misunderstanding built in that derange the reader's apprehension of what is really very ordinary syntax. Talking about tense in tensed sentences talking about time itself creates phantom, 'meta' syntax -- sort of like talking about English grammar in English. :) Commented Dec 9, 2012 at 4:11
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    My brain hurts! I rest my case! Commented Dec 9, 2012 at 4:12

Superficially it looks like past subjunctive (usually used in counterfactual if clauses), but actually I think it's really just simple past tense. Consider...

If you did the crime you must do the time

You did the crime so you must do the time

In those examples, I can't see that switching from "if" to "so" changes the "verb form" of "did". All it does is change the utterance from a "conditional sentence" to a "statement".

If it were [to have been?!] cast in the past subjunctive, it would be something more like...

If the Mayans were wrong to have ended the calendar on Dec 20...

  • In your example we could change the condition to the present tense and still be left with the same consequence. Could we do the same with the OP's example?
    – tylerharms
    Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 22:57
  • You are right that this is simple past, but your example labelled past subjunctive is not clearly so. Your “to have ended” means nothing, that is, it tell us nothing about the mode. Here is clearly the past subjunctive: “If the Mayan prophecy were wrong, the world would not end.” is a normal sequence, with were in the if-part and would in the then-part. Contrast with indicative: “If the Mayan prophecy was/is wrong, then the world is not going to (or: will not) end in 2012.” I don’t really have enough space to write about it here.
    – tchrist
    Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 23:02
  • @tchrist: “If the Mayan prophecy is wrong, the world will not end.” is also perfectly normal. But your version does look to me like "contrafactual subjunctive", which I read as implying that the prophesy is thought not to be wrong. My present tense version, and OP's example, seem to be simple conditionals to me, not subjunctive at all. Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 23:09
  • ...also note my preceding sentence in the answer text, which allows for the possibility of the somewhat ungainly "If the Mayans were to have been wrong", which I think strictly speaking would be [have been?] the past subjunctive. Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 23:13
  • You will note that I already mentioned your “if is, then will” possibility. Most importantly, I have no idea why you keep adding to-infinitive on the ends and calling it “strictly” past subjunctive. It is not. Only were – if that — is in the subjunctive there. The rest doesn’t enter into things, and does nothing to switch from indictative to subjunctive.
    – tchrist
    Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 23:27

@ StoneyB Two points:

First, regarding your analysis of whether this construction can or can't be described as subjunctive, I would refer you to the Wikipedia discussion of the conditional mood. As noted there, English doesn't have such a mood, but substitutes various periphrastic constructions for it. in the form identified as a "speculative conditional sentence," the dependent clause employs the future subjunctive, while the independent clause uses a modal verb + infinitive. This modal auxiliary construction in the independent clause is not itself in the subjunctive mood.

This analysis indicates yet another way in which the original sentence in the question is defective, stylistically at least.

Second, I'm having trouble following your approach to the temporal states; I have never seen this form of analysis before. It did prompt me to do some research on sequence of tenses in English, which proves to be a somewhat vexed subject (much like the subjunctive, particularly the future subjunctive). The most favored approach seems to be the so-called "natural" approach, which would recognise both of the following as grammatically correct, and would prefer one over the other only on the basis of the intended meaning:

  1. You were wrong to say X yesterday.
  2. You were wrong to have said X yesterday.

In my original answer I probably went too far in claiming that the latter example is grammatically required; I do prefer it stylistically, however, because it corresponds more closely to what I think is the even more preferable: "You were wrong when you said X yesterday."

Finally, a small point: I believe that the terms "past infinitive" and "perfect infinitive" are equivalent expressions. I would be happy to be educated on this point if I am wrong.

  • 1
    Because an infinitive is by definition a non-finite form of the verb, one cannot ever have a “past infinitive”. That does not make any sense. Even in the various language like English and Portuguese that have something of a “personal infinitive”, like “I asked him to do something” to avoid writing “I asked that he do something”, we still use a non-finite form there.
    – tchrist
    Commented Dec 9, 2012 at 21:58
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    Second, it is not very useful to claim that English has no conditional mood, because this stops you from talking about things that need talking about. The important quality is perfectly equivalent, and it is nonsensical to forbid talking about it.
    – tchrist
    Commented Dec 9, 2012 at 22:01
  • @tchrist: I'm not following you here, on either point. First, I am aware that in the theoretical scheme called "dependency grammar" the terms "finite" and "non-finite" are terms of art, but that is a very recent development that most traditional grammarians don't observe. Historically, the preterite form of a present infinitive (like "to do") has been referred to interchangeably as a "perfect infinitive" or a "past infinitive" (like "to have done").
    – Borstal
    Commented Dec 9, 2012 at 22:33
  • @ tchrist: Second, I don't "claim" English has no conditional mood -- it's simply a fact. English never developed such a verb form, although more inflected languages have. That fact doesn't bar any discussion oof conditionality, or how English expresses conditionality -- it does not "stop you from talking about things that need talking about."
    – Borstal
    Commented Dec 9, 2012 at 23:22
  • @Bortal Excuse me, but I was under the impression we were discussing English, not Latin. To claim that English has a temporally inflected infinitive is perfect nonsense. It does not. English has no such thing as a present or past infinitive. We have no amare as a present infinitive with matching perfective amavisse to go with it. We have a single infinitive, and it knows no time. I won’t even bother to address the second point, given that you seem to prefer to view English grammar with a Latin lens — and I do not. Given that gross disparity in mindsets, there is nothing left to discuss.
    – tchrist
    Commented Dec 10, 2012 at 1:02

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