I do like the word "pluperfect."
December 29, 2009 7:00 PM   Subscribe

What tense is the following sentence: "If you were still around, we would have had a Merry Christmas by now."

Conditional pluperfect, maybe? I can't quite wrap my head around it.

This is for a song I am working on, not a homework assignment, I promise.
posted by Karlos the Jackal to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Pluperfect subjunctive.
posted by orthogonality at 7:04 PM on December 29, 2009


Present subjunctive. A counterfactual statement (see here).
posted by hiteleven at 7:13 PM on December 29, 2009


I mean here.
posted by hiteleven at 7:13 PM on December 29, 2009


The 'were' in the condition is the past subjunctive. The 'would have had' in the consequence is either the pluperfect subjunctive or the past conditional, depending on how you look at it.

Part of the confusion is that the past subjunctive ('if you were') is a past form but does not express a past-tense sense. This is confounded here because the use of 'still' in the condition suggests the present tense. Removing it would give a more consistent result: "If you were around, we would have had a merry Christmas by now" or even "If you had been around, we would have had a merry Christmas by now."

Of course, this is song-writing, so you don't necessarily have the luxury of moving things around like that.
posted by jedicus at 7:30 PM on December 29, 2009


Properly, it would be "If you'd still been around, we would have had a..."

"If you'd still been around" is the pluperfect (completed action in the past, anterior to another time in the past).

"We would have had a" is the conditional past.

"If you were still around" would be the imperfect past, but it doesn't mesh with the second clause.
posted by musofire at 7:36 PM on December 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


It's the irrealis mood/mode. See also.
posted by limeonaire at 7:37 PM on December 29, 2009


-2 points for a poorly-worded question. You've asked for the verb tense of a sentence with two separate verb groups, and it's not clear which you meant.

limeonaire, the link is interesting, but arbitrarily naming a new verb tense is about as practical as creating a new language (Esperanto, anyone?).

My vote is with musofire two answers.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:25 PM on December 29, 2009


This is why grammarians don't write songs. :) All the "proper" examples just don't scan as well as the less correct but more charming original phrase, to my ear. And heck, call it "purple pluperfect" if it helps the song....
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:28 PM on December 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm marking orthogonality's answer as best, because 1) it is probably close enough for songmaking, and 2) I like the title "The Ghost of Christmas Pluperfect Subjunctive" better than "The Ghost of Christmas Grammatically Incorrect."

Properly, it would be "If you'd still been around, we would have had a..."

Yes, I see that now. The problem is that the implications are quite different, with your version (and jedicus' second suggestion) expressing a wish that the other person had been around at that past time, but not necessarily now, which is an important part to me. Well, like I said, close enough. Resolved!
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 11:08 PM on December 29, 2009


arbitrarily naming a new verb tense is about as practical as creating a new language (Esperanto, anyone?)

"Irrealis" is a term from linguistics for subjunctive and similarly tentative tenses, IAmBroom, and has actually been around at least 25 years.

In any case, Karlos the Jackal, I'm glad you found a good song title!
posted by limeonaire at 5:42 AM on December 30, 2009


Ok, I'm a linguistics dork and have a tendency to go on at length about this type of subject from time to time, so please excuse my potentially excessive analysis.

First point: the sentence in question has two clauses with one (head) verb each. Each verb is inflected and has its own tense (and aspect; more about that later). So there are two answers to your question: the first head verb, be, is in the present tense, subjunctive mood, and is the antecedent of the conditional that the entire sentence expresses. It is not, as others have claimed, past. The second head verb, have, is in the phrase that makes up the conclusion of the conditional. It is in the conditional past perfect. It is conditional, as expressed by the auxiliary 'would' (i.e. the action referred to did not occur but would have if the antecedent clause were true), the tense is past (obviously), and the aspect, which has to do with whether the event in question is finished or not, is perfect (i.e. the action has finished and is not ongoing).

Second point: The subjunctive is a mood, not a tense. It is one kind of irrealis mood. English has some but by no means all of these moods. The irrealis page on wikipedia is not a bad place to look for an overview of moods in the world's languages.

Third point: the word 'pluperfect' is awesome, I agree, but it refers to a past event that occurred prior to another past event, which doesn't seem to be the case here. An example of the pluperfect is something like: "When you came home I had (already) decorated the tree." Decorate is pluperfect because it completed before another event that is prior to the utterance time. The time of this other event is what linguists call the reference time. Usually, the reference time is the same as the utterance time, which is the case with your sentence; this is evident because the reference time is explicitly stated as "now". I suppose, however, that you could argue that because the reference time is explicitly stated, it is a separate entity in the sentence and thus the phrase "would have had" is pluperfect because it occurs prior to the reference time, even though that time matches up exactly with the utterance time, but this is a technical detail, and I'm sure the fact that there's even an argument to be made about the explicit reference time gives you enough ammo to use 'pluperfect' in the title of your song (which I've been listening to as I type (imperfect aspect!)). I guess the dubbing is done at this point (dubitative mood!), but once you get your big record deal you might want to reconsider "subjunctive pluperfect", because at least this gets the tenses in the correct order.

Fourth point: Properly, it would be "If you'd still been around..." Umm, this is a grammatically correct phrase, but so is the phrase that Karlos the Jackal used ("If you were still around..."), which is also proper and grammatically correct. They express different meanings.

Fifth point: me, plate of beans, etc.
posted by tractorfeed at 7:17 AM on December 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


tractorfeed -- "subjunctive pluperfect" works just as well for me, and if it's somewhat more accurate, all the better. Thanks for your thoughtful analysis!
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 1:00 PM on December 30, 2009


"Irrealis" is a term from linguistics for subjunctive and similarly tentative tenses, IAmBroom, and has actually been around at least 25 years.

I stand corrected, limeonaire.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:55 PM on January 2, 2010


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