Tense agreement

1

Is the structure of this sentence fine to use?

 

If it was written by a native speaker, then they have written a very poor statement.


I think that it should be

 

If it was /were written by a native speaker, then they would write a very poor statement.

 

or

 

If it had been written by a native speaker, then they would have written a very poor statement.

 

Or is there a reason you say the sentence that way and is there a meaning difference between them? Thank you so much in advance.

edited Jan 27 '13 at 04:37 Hans Contributor

1 answer


2

Another great question!  The first sentence is okay, the second is ungrammatical, and the third is grammatical but only applicable in an unusual context.

 

What the speaker wants to communicate in these sentences is that (1) they are unsure whether the statement was written by a native speaker (or a non-native speaker), and that (2) if the writer was a native speaker, then the statement is poorly written.  Conditional sentences can be used to express tentative opinions like this. 

 

If it was written by a native speaker, then they have written a very poor statement.

 

The temporal context here is that the statement has been written in the past, and the speaker is commenting on its quality.

 

The use of the conditional in this sentence suggests that the speaker has not concluded whether a native speaker or a second language speaker wrote the statement, and perhaps can't bring himself/herself to believe it was a native speaker.  Without making a firm conclusion, the speaker expresses his opinion that, if it was written by a native speaker, the writing quality is indeed poor.  The implication is that if, in fact, the writer was a second language speaker of English, then the speaker would evaluate the writing quality more leniently.

 

I myself would reword this sentence this way:  If the statement was written by a native speaker, it's  very poorly written.

 

If it was /were written by a native speaker, then they would write a very poor statement.

 

This sentence is not grammatically correct.  The temporal quality of the entire statement is unclear because the if-clause is talking about a past event and the main clause describes the writing of the statement in a future, modal way.  The parts don't fit together.

 

First of all, let's look at the was/were choice.  Using were definitely makes the if-clause subjunctive, and shows that the speaker believes it to be impossible, or at least highly unlikely, that a native speaker wrote it.  (Use of this subjunctive were is not commonly used anymore, except in formal written contexts; disbelief or impossibility is often expressed in other ways.)

 

In any event, the if-clause is describing a statement that has definitely already been written.

 

On the other hand, the main clause is describing the writing of that statement as a future event, using the modal verb would to predict that the quality of the writing would be poor.  The condition of "what kind of writer wrote the statement" cannot logically describe how the writer would, in the future, write that exact same statement.  So it doesn't make sense.

 

If it had been written by a native speaker, then they would have written a very poor statement.

 

This sentence is a third, or unreal, conditional. We use the third/unreal conditional to talk about an unreal past condition and the unreal result of that past condition, what would have happened.  In other words, neither the condition in the if-clause or the result in the main clause actually happened.

 

I have thought too long about this, but basically I have concluded that your third sentence is grammatical, and would make sense in a very specific context.  I much prefer your first sentence, especially my revised version of it.  This third sentence shifts the if-clause back into Past Perfect tense, and the main clause into a would + Present Perfect construction.   

 

The only context I can imagine where such a sentence would make sense and sound natural is if the statement was definitely written by a non-native speaker, and the speaker is commenting on a past situation and a past evaluation, rather than focusing on an evaluation in the present.  For example:

 

A:  Remember at last month's meeting, when we read that statement?  It was poorly writtten.

 

B:  Yes, but it was written by a Japanese student.  She is still learning English.

 

A: Oh, I didn't know that.  Well I guess it was not so bad for a non-native speaker, then.  If it had been written by a native speaker, then they would have written a very poor statement.

 

B:  I agree.

 

Even so, I much prefer rewording that sentence in this context to read If it had been written by a native speaker, it would have been very poor.

 

Other issues

 

1.  Your sentences use 'the singular they'.  I myself don't have a big problem with that, but other grammarians object strongly to its use.   My revised versions of two of your sentences eliminate the need for 'the singular they', and I would point you to a previous post of mine on this topic:  http://www.grammarly.com/answers/questions/11155-the-singular-they/.

 

2.  All of your sentences use then to introduce the main clause.  It is acceptable, and fairly common, in spoken English to do so, but then is redundant; the main clause is inherently and grammatically conditional upon the if-clause.  Using then in formal written English should be avoided for this reason.

 

I hope this helps.

link edited Jan 27 '13 at 06:39 Shawn Mooney Expert

Excellent descriptive answer!

sanjayJan 27 '13 at 07:31

I totally agree with you and thank you so much.

HansJan 27 '13 at 10:02

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