It’s often said that non-native speakers have a poor understanding of the English tenses. I’m not one to disagree, but on the whole I’ve always thought tenses weren’t that hard, until I got to the conditionals and the subjunctive. Since trying to learn a bit more about them, I’ve gotten really lost. At this point, I’m trying to understand the differences between these four “constructions”:
- If ever there were to be held a vote on X
- If ever there was to be held a vote on X
- If ever one were to hold a vote on X
- If ever we’d (decide to) hold a vote on X
For clarity: I’ll be refering to these examples as “constructions”, when I mention an “action”, I’m talking about the verb or word group that follows the auxiliary verb(s). In the examples, the action, then, is to hold a vote.
I’m thinking these constructions are expressing four different things:
- Whatever follows this, will deal with the outcome of this hypothetical action. Even so, the action is likely never to take place. Something like: “If ever there were to be held a vote on the intelligence of sheep, The international community would really think we’ve lost the plot”.
- This , to me, expresses that at some point in time, it would have been possible for the action to take place, but it didn’t. Though the rest of the sentence deals with the run-up to that action in a sort of know-it-all, historian trying to put things into context sort of way. “If ever there was to be an all-out nuclear war, the Cuba crises was when that would’ve happend, and people were truly terrified.”
- Simply expressing something that is, in theory possible, but will never become reality. The action is either tedious, requires too much effort or authority you don’t have: “If one were to get every able bodied person to jump down on the ground at the same time, the resulting earthquake would be massive”
- Same as 3, only in this case, it would be possible to undertake the action, but either its outcome is considered a given, or it’s possible that the result of that action is something one would avoid, so it’s never going to happen. It’s a phrase that a politician might say: “If ever we’d hold a vote on our raising taxes, people would be livid, we’d get the first unanimous result in democratic history and never get re-elected again”
I’d like to know if I’m completely wrong here, and what these conditionals mean to the native speakers. Some sort of reliable on-line resource on the matter would be most helpful, too.
I agree with the comment from @PeterShor that constructions 1-3 all effectively mean the same. Construction 4 is just awkward, but I wouldn’t interpret it differently from the others.
On the other hand, they all seem somewhat long-winded, and could simply be written as:
If ever a vote were held on X
As regards your four ‘meanings’:
I think the use of “If ever” rather than simply “If …” is what conveys the possibly hypothetical nature of the action, and therefore that hypothetical nature carries through all your constructions.
To convey your second meaning, I would use the past perfect tense:
If ever there were to have been …
To convey your third meaning, I would omit “ever” and write:
If, theoretically, …
To convey your fourth meaning, I’d use something like:
If ever we were actually to hold …
If ever a vote were actually to be held …
In summary, no, I don’t think that the constructions actually convey different meanings, and, if I wanted to convey such nuances, I would use additional words and/or different tenses.