Linguist Forum

Specializations => Morphosyntax => Topic started by: Natalia on August 13, 2019, 11:52:49 AM

Title: ...if you are / were free
Post by: Natalia on August 13, 2019, 11:52:49 AM
Can you tell me please if these two verb forms in bold are correct in the following sentences? Can we mix the first and second conditional as in sentence 2?

1. I thought maybe we could have a little chat now if you were free?
2. I thought maybe we could have a little chat now if you are free?
Title: Re: ...if you are / were free
Post by: panini on August 13, 2019, 05:22:06 PM
Yes, both are okay. The one with "were" is mildly odd, but I'd call that a style problem. The context kind of encourages use of "were". In "If you {were/*are} rich you could afford this" and "If you {are/*were} rich you can afford this", the distribution is more strict, and corresponds to counterfactuality in the case of "were". As an isolated answer to a question like "Is this affordable?", selection of were vs. are in the response ("Sure, if you {are/were} rich") similarly correlates with the implication that we don't know if you are rich (are) vs. we know that you are not rich (were). By selecting "were" in your pair, you are suggesting that the addressee is not free, which is a way of defeating the inference that you've just imposed an obligation on the addressee (since the sentence is plainly a request for a meeting). Perhaps my judgement of oddness stems from my dislike of contorted ways of making requests.
Title: Re: ...if you are / were free
Post by: Daniel on August 13, 2019, 09:02:40 PM
Either sounds fine to me. "Are" is a literal/accurate form, while "were" matches the indirect request with "thought".

Compare:
1'. Can we talk if you are free?
2'. *Can we talk if you were free?

"Are" is obviously the default form, but "were" can be used when speaking indirectly and emphasizing you aren't making any assumptions or being imposing.

Note that as with any variety of related forms, these indirect forms are indirect and can therefore be polite in the right circumstances (when talking to a someone in a higher social position, like a professor or boss), but can also be impolite/awkward when they don't match the situation (talking to friends, etc.).
Title: Re: ...if you are / were free
Post by: Forbes on August 15, 2019, 02:44:35 AM
I agree that the first sentence comes over as not quite right.

I think we can show the problem with two different sentences:

We could go to the cinema if you were free.

The speaker acknowledges that the person addressed is in fact not free.

We could go to the cinema if you are free.

Here the speaker is uncertain if the person addressed is free.
Title: Re: ...if you are / were free
Post by: Daniel on August 15, 2019, 04:05:03 PM
Actually, I should clarify one thing: if these are questions as written in the original post, then "were" is very strange, assuming that's like a question tagged on the end-- "... If you were free?" But if it's a statement, "I thought X, if Y were the case" then that's OK as an alternative.
Title: Re: ...if you are / were free
Post by: Forbes on August 16, 2019, 02:09:18 AM
Actually, I should clarify one thing: if these are questions as written in the original post, then "were" is very strange, assuming that's like a question tagged on the end-- "... If you were free?" But if it's a statement, "I thought X, if Y were the case" then that's OK as an alternative.

I think it is a case that if you saw, and more likely if you heard: "I thought maybe we could have a little chat now if you were free" whether as question or statement, it would pass unnoticed. It is only when asked to consider it, and especially if asked to compare it with: "I thought maybe we could have a little chat now if you are free" that you feel that, even if the former is not wrong, the latter is better.
Title: Re: ...if you are / were free
Post by: Daniel on August 16, 2019, 06:37:00 AM
My point was to emphasize the possible intonation difference. If "If you were free!?" was a tag question, almost a sentence in itself, that would be very odd. Consider:

1'. ???I thought maybe we could have a little chat now. I mean, if you were free?
2'. I thought maybe we could have a little chat now. I mean, if you are free?

But regarding comparing the two as paired clauses in a conditional sentence, I don't see why you wouldn't find "were" acceptable, unless you specifically don't like the formal use of the past form there in formal requests (which is fine, but very common at least for some English speakers). "I wanted to talk to you if you were free." or "I was going to ask you a question if you were free." Those are completely natural to my ears. The past tense is a way of being unimposing in an indirect request. It's a bit of a social oddity in English, but it's common enough.
Title: Re: ...if you are / were free
Post by: panini on August 16, 2019, 07:58:52 AM
I would not rely much on intonation? If you know what I mean?
Title: Re: ...if you are / were free
Post by: Daniel on August 16, 2019, 10:08:11 AM
No, but I was using that to illustrate whether it's intended as basically an independent sentence. It only makes sense with "were" within the scope of the conditional, "copying" that form from the previous clause.
Title: Re: ...if you are / were free
Post by: Natalia on August 16, 2019, 11:59:51 AM
Based on what you have said here, I assume that the sentence "I thought maybe we could have a little chat now if you are free?" sounds better (especially when we are addressing our friend etc.) and is considered correct grammar? On the other hand, the past form "were" could be used if we wanted to sound sort of less direct and more polite?

I just wasn't sure if we could combine present and past forms together in a "if" sentence, but apparently we can. There is even the following sentence in my notebook (the lesson was about mixed conditionals and the sentence was given by my teacher as an example of 1 + 2 conditional, where we mix the hypotheticity):
I'm giving you the money if you wanted to buy something.
Title: Re: ...if you are / were free
Post by: Daniel on August 16, 2019, 12:11:24 PM
Again, try to understand not with rules but with patterns and effects of those patterns. Why would you say it one way or another? Your textbook will tell you rules. Linguists look for and try to explain patterns.

Yes, in general, you could say either one, but the most neutral would be present tense.
Title: Re: ...if you are / were free
Post by: Natalia on August 16, 2019, 12:36:29 PM
OK I'll try to think this way. But just to be sure, when we are talking about grammatical correctness, can we say in this particular case than one form is *more* correct than the other, or not really?
Title: Re: ...if you are / were free
Post by: Daniel on August 16, 2019, 01:28:04 PM
The term "correct" is not something that linguists use. Regardless, it's more important to understand what is appropriate to convey the meaning you want to express.
Title: Re: ...if you are / were free
Post by: Forbes on August 17, 2019, 04:21:58 AM
I just wasn't sure if we could combine present and past forms together in a "if" sentence, but apparently we can.

The point is not so much that the sentence with "were" can be classed as ungrammatical, but that (especially when asked to consider it) it seems to have lost its way with the two halves being out of sync. Panini hits the nail on the head when he says: 'By selecting "were" in your pair, you are suggesting that the addressee is not free, which is a way of defeating the inference that you've just imposed an obligation on the addressee (since the sentence is plainly a request for a meeting).'
Title: Re: ...if you are / were free
Post by: Natalia on August 17, 2019, 07:16:45 AM
Of course it is. The thing is, I just want to be sure I use good English at the same time. I hope you know what I mean. And the reason why I asked which form might be possibly considered more correct is that once I asked my English friend why she used "have" instead of "had" in: "I wanted to know if you have this shirt in blue", and she replied:

"The reason I used the present tense in the example is because you would be physically present in the store and interested in the current availability. However, when you’re using a past structure as well as an “if” clause, you can also use “had.” The meaning is pretty much the same, with “had” sounding slightly more tentative. You’ll hear both in natural speech, but “had” is probably more grammatically correct."
Title: Re: ...if you are / were free
Post by: panini on August 17, 2019, 10:10:09 AM
"Grammatically correct" generally means "follows certain normative rules", such as set forth in Strunk & White. This "subjunctive" form is dying out in actual speech, so you will encounter a range of uses and opinions, depending on who you ask. If you say something like "Had I known about the train, I would have left earlier", you will mark yourself as "talking funny". You could get away with it in a formal lecture, but not if you're just chatting with your mates at the local, or having a beer with friends at the bar. It is most-dead in the US, among the young. OTOH, *"Have I known about the train,...." is just plain and universally ungrammatical. If you use it, you're socially expected to use it correctly, following those normative rules (whatever they are). Your shirt example is a good example of people making stuff up – hyper-rationalizing.

IMO it is most productive to focus on classical conditional contexts – the difference between "If he had dug a hole" vs. "If he dug a hole" or "If he has dug a hole"; "If he were rich" vs. "If he was rich" or "If he is rich". For me, "If he has dug a hole, he would be covered in dirt" is not quite ungrammatical, but I really don't like it. But I suspect that the kids on the corner talk that way. If your goal is to emulate a certain social class, e.g. The Posh (of England), then you probably need a Posh tutor. I believe that if you can get the had/has difference figured out in this context (actual conditionals), you might be able to apply that to the other contexts where "if" is used.








Title: Re: ...if you are / were free
Post by: Daniel on August 17, 2019, 01:10:17 PM
Quote
'By selecting "were" in your pair, you are suggesting that the addressee is not free, which is a way of defeating the inference that you've just imposed an obligation on the addressee (since the sentence is plainly a request for a meeting).'
It can mean that (by using that form-- or "had been"-- instead of "are"), but it can also just be a more formal way of phrasing it, without implying that you are not free. This is a very common formal request structure. (It's grammatically odd, as one of a few times we preserve the subjunctive usage, and it's only found in formal/learned speech patterns, not as something that is particularly natural or colloquial, but it isn't particularly rare either.)
Really, the form is not asserting whether or not you are free, which is what the subjunctive does (because it's not an indicative form, and doesn't assert). So yes, it contrasts with "are" (indicative) in that sense, but given that "are" is already in a conditional statement, there's no entailment of being free anyway. It's just emphasizing the lack of assertion. Basically it's the grammatical equivalent of saying "I don't want to trouble you, but..."