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What If? - Past Tense Sequence

Quiz playing is a wonderful way to increase your knowledge of English as a Second Language. Remember that all of our ESL quizzes have titles that are both friendly and technical at the same time… In the case of this quiz you might like to tell your friends about “What If??” but no doubt your teachers will talk about the “Past Tense quiz”! If you hear a technical term and you want to find a quiz about the subject then just look through the list of quiz titles until you find what you need.

Past tenses express an action that has happened or a state that previously existed.

Someone once said that the study of History is an endless exploration of 'What if...?'. ('What if Britain had been conquered by Napoleon, or Hitler?' 'What if JF Kennedy, or Martin Luther King, had not been assassinated?' 'How would things be different?')

As in many languages, there are established sequences of tenses for the verbs in such situations. How smart are you at choosing the right past tenses?

  1. Pick the answer that offers the most accurate and sensible English to fill the gap/s.
    'If I were you, I ... ... ask for written confirmation of the offer, before doing anything else.'
    'If I were ... , I would ... ' is the usual formula for such an imaginary situation. It all sounds a bit as though it is in past tenses ~ but this is just a convention of language, to bring the situation one step further away from actual reality.
    Answers 1 and 2 are too definite; No.4 is not definite enough!
  2. Pick the answer that offers the most accurate and sensible English to fill the gap/s.
    'Had Country A not persistently aggravated Country B, World War 3 ... ... .'
    Let's hope no future historian has cause to write such a sentence about any two countries, let alone yours and ours!
    Note what parts of the verb construction have to be there, and in what order they come. If we leave aside the meaning, you can take away the 'never'; if you also peel away the passive ('been'), you are left with ' ... would have started', which is perhaps rather more manageable.
    We can get rid of the 'been' anyhow: ' ... WW3 would never have started' is fine as a clause, if not as a historical idea. In this case the War itself becomes active, rather than passive ('been started'); we have already considered which country might have been to blame, so that passive is not really necessary.
  3. Pick the answer that offers the most accurate and sensible English to fill the gap/s.
    ' ... ... what he actually wanted, she might have had second thoughts about going away with him for the weekend.'
    We need a Pluperfect formation here ('past perfect'), because her realising should have happened even longer ago than the weekend (which, itself, is one step into the past from 'now'): so there needs to be a 'had' somewhere, to express this time-distance clearly.
    The 'had' can go on the front, as here ~ almost as though in a question ~ to set up an 'if'-type condition, but without using the word 'if' itself. (Turning the verb round like this is considered sufficient indication that we are setting up a hypothetical situation; see also Question 4, above.)
  4. Pick the answer that offers the most accurate and sensible English to fill the gap/s.
    'We ... ... all that way, ... ... how disappointing the event would be.'
    Answer 1 is correct here: apart from anything else, it is the only one with the proper past form of 'know' at the end of the second blank.
  5. Pick the answer that offers the most accurate and sensible English to fill the gap/s.
    'Had I only known, I ... ... myself to this crazy project.'
    All four Answers contain the right words here, but only No.4 is an acceptable order. You may wish to think your way slowly and carefully through this in order to understand its workings in full detail.
    The only other possible order (not offered here, to avoid confusion over the selection and scoring!) would be:
    ' ... I never would have committed ... ' (This brings the 'never' as far forward as possible, to emphasise it forcefully).
  6. Pick the answer that offers the most accurate and sensible English to fill the gap/s.
    'If all the world ... ... paper and all the sea ... ... ink,
    And all the trees ... ... bread and cheese,
    What ... ... we have to drink?'
    (Children's nonsense-rhyme)
    All three of the silly suggestions are, of course, complete fantasy ~ so we need 'were', and then we wonder what result 'would' follow.
  7. Pick the answer that offers the most accurate and sensible English to fill the gap/s.
    'What ... ... today, if nobody ... ... computers?'
    Answer 2 is also good, but the present-continuous verb form in No.4 picks up on the idea of 'today' in a more immediate way.
    Answer 1 is grammatically possible, but rather silly in fact ~ because, clearly, we do actually have computers!
  8. Pick the answer that offers the most accurate and sensible English to fill the gap/s.
    'If his mother ... ... properly , there's no way he ... ... such an accident.'
    Either 'if she were watching', or, better, 'if she had been' (but, sadly, she wasn't) ...then her son 'could not have (had)' the accident.
    Parts of some of the other Answers are good, but none of the others hangs together as well as this one.
  9. Pick the answer that offers the most accurate and sensible English to fill the gap/s.
    'If God ... ... , it ... ... to invent Him.' (Voltaire)
    'If one thing did happen, another thing would not' (like heads and tails on the toss of a coin).
  10. Pick the answer that offers the most accurate and sensible English to fill the gap/s.
    'If ... ... justice in the world, nobody ... ... go to bed hungry.'
    'If one thing were true, another thing would follow.'
    Try to remember the basic structure: set up the 'trigger' first, using an 'if'-clause' and (usually) a verb structure including 'were' ... then follow with the consequence, using 'would'. 'Were' comes before 'would' alphabetically (just!); the 'trigger' needs to come before the possible result (though sometimes, for effect, we may state the result first and then explain what might prevent it: 'We'd be in deep trouble if we were on the wrong side of that line'.)
    It is a sad thought that some people in our world are not only hungry, but they have no bed to sleep in; and even if they did, they may still be too hungry to sleep at all. Let's hope that your study of another language may help to make the world just one tiny, but useful, bit smaller ...

Author: Ian Miles

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