Why ‘is’ is not really a verb

In grammar, we call ‘to be’ a verb, or use the term ‘linking verb’. ‘To be’ is certainly something very similar to a verb: it forms the same sorts of constructions with the same moods, tenses (past, present, future) and aspects (perfect, continuous, habitual); it often acts as an auxiliary verb in constructions with other main verbs; it can be an intransitive verb in its own right (as a synonym for ‘exist’); but in its typical usage it is distinctly different from other verbs in certain ways and deserves to be thought of as something slightly different from a verb. In Linguistics, the label given to ‘to be’ in its classic usage (“dinner is ready”) is the Copula.

Arguments and Complements

True verbs may or may not have nouns or clauses they interact with, which in Linguistics are called arguments. The most well-known argument of a verb is the Object. Other arguments can include the Indirect Object, the Result State (an adjective), a location phrase, or a dependent prepositional phrase (a prepositional phrase required by a particular verb). However, ‘to be’, the Copula, doesn’t have arguments, it has complements, the technical term applied to them is Predicative Complement (I’ll just use the term Complement, with a capital letter, as a proper noun).

‘To be’ can take four types of Complement:

  • A noun phrase:*
           “An apple is a fruit.”
  • An adjective phrase:
           “That apple is totally rotten.
  • A location phrase:
           “Your guests are here.”
  • A prepositional phrase:
           “The children are at the beach.”

[* In Linguistics and grammar, a phrase can consist of a single word. For example, a single pronoun is still a noun phrase.]


I’ve described elsewhere the syntactic movement that occurs to cause adverbs to adopt the positions they do in English grammar, which is somewhat linguistic and technical, so I won’t discuss it here. The important thing to note, however, is that ‘to be’ behaves differently from a true verb, especially when it is in a single-word construction (i.e. one without modal or auxiliary verbs).

In a verbal construction, the natural position for most adverbs* is after the modal or first auxiliary (if there is one), but before the main verb; and an adverb can only appear between the verb and its main arguments (e.g. the Object) in very exceptional circumstances.

[* Adverb position is quite irregular and some adverbs strongly prefer some positions more than others.]

For example, with single-word verb constructions:
        “She always      ate        healthy food.
                         adverb     main verb          Object
is grammatical, but:
       She ate             always   healthy food.
                     main verb      adverb                 Object
is definitely not.

With single-word ‘to be’ verb:
       She was    always     healthy.
                    ‘to be’       adverb         Complement
       She    always     was          healthy.
                         adverb       main verb      Complement
are both equally grammatical. However, with a single-word ‘to be’ construction, the most common natural adverb position is after ‘to be’:
       She was     always    healthy.
                    ‘to be’       adverb        Complement.

For a multi-word verbal construction, the natural position of the adverb is after the Modal or first Auxiliary:
       She     would     always     have       eaten          healthy food.
                          modal            adverb          auxiliary      main verb         Object
This is the same for ‘to be’ constructions with modals or auxiliaries:
       She has         always    been     healthy.
                      auxiliary    adverb         ‘to be’         Complement

Adverb placement with ‘to be’ is much more subtle than with verbs. ‘To be’ constructions with Modals or auxiliaries, as noted above, are essentially the same as those with verbs, but single-word to be constructions are quite different, with a different natural position for the adverb and more flexibility in where it can be placed. Some usages sound better than others (which suggests much more complex and varied syntactic movement).

One interesting thing to note (for very advanced speakers or readers interested in Linguistics) is that the natural position varies in single-word constructions depending on whether one is using the present tense or past tense:
       She always   was     healthy.
                    adverb        ‘to be’      Complement
sounds better than:
       She   always   is       healthy.
                       adverb       ‘to be’     Complement
In the present tense, it sounds much better to say:
       She   is        always    healthy.
                       ‘to be’    adverb         Complement

In this way, ‘to be’ in the simple present tense (am, are, is) acts like an auxiliary verb with no main verb, but ‘was’ can either adopt the auxiliary or main verb position.* In other words, in the past tense, the adverb can appear on either side of was, but in the present tense it sounds better if it follows was.

[* If you understood the article on the Verb Phrase, this is because the present tense of ‘to be’ is inflected for person and number (am, is, are), but ‘was’ is not, so there is a much stronger pull to the Head of Inflect Phrase for the present tense.]

Thus, in terms of sentence structure, ‘to be’ has Complements and not arguments, and adverb placement is more varied than with true verbs.


‘To be’ also acts differently to verbs in conditionals,* with respect to ‘unreality’.

[* if you are interested in the details of conditionals and unreality there is a long article here.]

In unreal conditionals, in standard less-formal English, unreality is expressed by a ‘step back in time’. For example:
       If I knew the answer, I would tell you,
uses the past tense to describe the unreal present; and:
       If I had known the answer, I would have told you,
uses the past perfect to express the past.

       If I was rich I would be happy,
is not grammatical in standard English (although it is widely used in casual English); the formal (or subjunctive) form should always be used with ‘to be’:
       If I were rich, I would be happy.

As well as this, it is typically enough in standard English just to use the ‘were’ form. We are far less concerned about ‘stepping back’ instances of ‘to be’ into the past-perfect. For example, with a verb in the unreal past in standard English, we should say:
       If I had seen it, I would have told you,
but, when talking about the unreal past:
       If I saw it, I would have told you,
sounds very casual.
However, with ‘to be’:
       If I had been there, I would have seen it,
       If I were there, I would have seen it,
are both equally acceptable. We only feel the need to use the past perfect if there might be confusion as to whether the ‘to be’ state still exists. In other words, if there were some confusion about whether I were still there in the above example, I might use “if I had been there,” but otherwise, “if I were there” is fine.

To summarise, in conditionals, unlike with true verbs, we see that ‘to be’ is expressed in the subjunctive mood and never in the simple past, at least in standard English, and the ‘step back in time’ is often not applied.


Full Subject-Object inversions with verbs are very rare in English. They sound extremely stylistic and very old fashioned. For example:
       The dragon      slew      he,
           Object                       verb          Subject
where ‘he’ (obviously) is the Subject, sounds so old-fashioned it is positively Mediaeval. However, when ‘to be’ is used, inversions are a lot more common. For example:
       Happy            is         the man who loves his work,
          Complement        ‘to be’       Subject
sounds a little old-fashioned and stylistic, but is still quite acceptable in modern English.

When ‘to be’ has a prepositional phrase or a location as a Complement, such Subject-Complement inversions are actually very common, as in:
       On the bench          are       some apples.
          prepositional phrase      ‘to be’       Subject
       Here                     are         your notes.
          location phrase           ‘to be’         Subject
In fact, these types of Subject-Complement inversions, with location phrases or prepositional phrases, are probably as common as the non-inverted forms.


So we all call ‘to be’ a verb because it is very similar to a verb, but it is useful to be aware that, when you are learning English, ‘to be’ – in its role linking nouns and their Predicative Complements – has many rules all of its own. Sentences with a single-word form of ‘to be’ have different sentence ordering, with adverbs preferring different positions; unreal conditionals with ‘to be’ are different to those with true verbs – with were always replacing was in standard English, and with less need to apply a ‘step back in time; and Subject-Complement inversions, especially those involving prepositional phrases or location phrases, are very common, while Subject-Object inversions are extremely rare with true verbs.

You can think of it as the Copula, a verb, a linking verb, or just ‘to be’, but just be aware that it is not like any other verb.

Unreality (‘Irrealis’) – Conditionals and Reported Speech – and some Shakespeare!

[ Category: Advanced Grammar, Linguistics, Shakespeare ]

In this post:
     Verbs and their properties
     Irrealis (unreality)
     Use of Modal Verbs (‘touch wood!’)
     Some Conditionals from Shakespeare compared to modern Conditionals

Properties of Verbs

Traditional grammar defines five basic properties of verbs – Person (i.e. First-person, Second-person, Third-person; I, you, she), Number (Singular or Plural), Tense (Past, Present or Future), Voice (Active or Passive) and Mood. Person and Number relate only to how Verbs ‘agree’ with their Nouns (in most inflected languages, including English, this means their Subjects). Person and Number have no effect on meaning and are omitted from the diagram below. This leaves us with Tense, Voice and Mood.

To these, Linguistics adds another property: Aspect. In traditional grammar, Aspect is considered part of Tense, but Linguistics considers these two properties to be different, albeit related.

The other properties will be discussed elsewhere; this post deals with Mood.

properties of verbs A


Irrealis (Real and Unreal Mood)

Mood is the grammatical term for what in Linguistics is called Irrealis, or ‘unreality’. Look at the following examples:

  • “That haircut looks lovely on you,” (which might well be said of a real haircut).
  • “That haircut would look lovely on you,” (which could be said while looking through a fashion magazine).

The first example is making a statement about the real world. It has no Irrealis. In grammar it is described as being in the Indicative Mood, indicating a fact about real life. This post is all about Irrealis.

The second example is describing a hypothetical or imaginary situation. It has Irrealis, marked by a verb of Mood, or Modal Verb. English has three ways to convey Irrealis:

  • Modal Verbs
  • The Subjunctive Mood (a partially archaic verb form), and
  • The ‘Step Back in Time’ – where the tense of the verb is moved one step back: from Present to Past; or from Past to Past Perfect. This is the Irrealis Mood of modern spoken English.

In additional to the Indicative mood (no Irrealis), there are a range of Moods, corresponding in English to various uses of the Modal Verbs (will/shall, can, may would, might, could, should, must). As well as these, grammar recognises the Imperative Mood (for giving commands, like “go to sleep!”); and some other constructions like “let’s go!” (the Jussive Mood). Traditional grammar considers Questions to be a form of Mood (the Interrogative Mood), but due to their quite different Syntactic structure (discussed here), some Linguists tend to regard Interrogatives (or Questions) to be entirely different constructions (I agree with them – Syntactically, Questions are a Clause type –  see here).

Modals in Main Clauses

In an Independent Clause – a Clause not dependent on another for its meaning, such as sentence or a Main Clause – Irrealis in contemporary English can only be conveyed by Modal Verbs.

Modal Verbs all convey Irrealis in some form. Most of them are obvious, they describe ‘counterfactual’ situations (situations that contrary to fact). There is one Modal Verb that is less obvious though, and that is Will. In English, the typical use of Will is to mark the Future Tense, but in fact Will is a minimum-Irrealis Modal Verb. It conveys a mood of subjective certainty.

Dependent Clauses: Step Back or Subjunctive

In Dependent Clauses, Irrealis is not conveyed by the use of Modals. Modal Verbs may sometimes appear in Dependent Clauses, but if so, they always are there for other reasons.

If you would like some more cheese,           you may help yourself.
Condition Clause: Polite Irrealis                                    :    Main Clause: no Irrealis

This example is a First Conditional with a ‘polite-Would‘ in the Condition Clause, which you can think of as being derived from the polite sentence form: “You would like some more cheese.” The Irrealis here (“would”) conveys respect for the autonomy of the hearer, not conditionality. The May Modal in the Main Clause conveys Irrealis, but May is used to convey Irrealis within the Real context, not the Unreal. Thus you can have a Zero Conditional, describing a fact about life, yet it can still have Modal Verbs in both Clauses. They are expressing Irrealis, but not the Irrealis of the Conditional itself  – this is discussed detail below.

Side note: we use this polite Would because at the heart of the concept of politeness in British English is the notion that the hearer is free – they are an autonomous individual. We do not tell them what to do (not Linguistically, anyway) and we do not speak for them; so when we are being polite, we make statements and phrase questions as if they were possibilities, not facts, so as not to be speaking for the other person. In this respect, Linguistic politeness is very deep and reflects a cultural appreciation for freedom and human rights that long predates our actual legal rights.

This comment on politeness strategies is slightly less true for American English, in which – like German, by which it has been so strongly influenced – there is slightly more of an emphasis on being polite by not wasting people’s time, by getting to the point. It still reflects respect for the freedom of the interlocutor (the person you are speaking to), but that respect is conveyed slightly differently.

The two methods of conveying Irrealis in Dependent Clauses are by the use of the Subjunctive Mood (an old verb construction that still exists in places in English), or the Step Back in Time. The two kinds of Dependent Clause in which Irrealis is most often used are Conditionals and Reported Speech (Indirect Statements and Indirect Questions). This post will look at Conditionals – Reported Speech will be addressed in a different post.


In English teaching, Conditionals are typically categorised into one of four types: First, Second, Third and Zero Conditional (explained below) – a simple classification that covers most of their uses. These four types are definitely very handy to know, but this classification is not the clearest way to fully understand Conditionals. They are best understood by examining them from the perspective of Irrealis, or Unreality.

As noted above, while English has a Future Tense, in the sense that we have constructions we use typically or almost exclusively to describe the future, there are only two ‘natural’ tenses, tenses that are natural to all human language, the Past and Present/Future. The human mind naturally divides events into those that have happened; and those that are happening or will happen – into time before the present moment and time from this point on. Evidence of this can be seen in English Conditionals. Most Conditionals that describe the future can also describe the present; in fact there is no real mental distinction between the unreal present and the unreal future – all unreal statements that that don’t describe an alternative past take place in the unreal present/future. There are some Conditional constructions that typically describe the future, but they are variants of those Conditionals that describe the present/future; and they are just usages that we have when we want to specifically emphasise we are talking about a future event; and even these constructions – in an appropriate context – can be understood to describe the present.

Real and Unreal Conditionals

There are two groupings of Conditionals, one in which Irrealis is applied (the Unreal Conditionals) and one in which it is not (the Real Conditionals). Obviously, the presence of If implies some unreality on its own, but this is not Irrealis – Irrealis is a Linguistic process, not simply a sense of unreality. Within each group, there are basically two Tenses – a Past Tense and a Present/Future Tense, although within each group there are some constructions or markers that suggest or prefer Future Tense and can be thought of as Future Conditionals.

Every Conditional consists of a Condition Clause (which is Dependent Clause, meaning it requires another Clause and is ungrammatical on its own) and a Main Clause, which carries the logical result or outcome of the conditional:

If you add 1+1,     you get 2.
Conditional Clause   :   Main Clause

The following diagram shows the rules applied to Condition and Main Clauses in Real and Unreal Conditionals.

conditional rules_v2


Real Conditionals

As shown above, Real Conditionals have no marker for Irrealis in the Condition Clause and often also in the Main Clause. The Condition Clause is in its natural tense – Past Tense for a past condition and Present Tense for a present or future condition. The same rule can be applied to Main Clause, although the Modal Verb Will is very often used here, but it is by no means required.

Absent any other context, Will is assumed to describe the future. However, Will is not technically a Future Tense marker: it is the marker of subjective certainty – that is to say, the speaker indicates that they personally feel the outcome or prediction is certain. It is not required and the Present Tense can often be used in its place. The Present Tense, a completely unmarked Main Clause, conveys even less Irrealis than Will. Will expresses a subjective state of mind; the natural Tense (usually Present Tense in Real Conditionals) states a fact.

As discussed below, we refrain from using the Present Tense when describing the future, with the exception of quite mundane topics, because we are superstitious about predicting future events with absolute certainty.

For example, one can say:
        “We will leave tomorrow,”
or one can say:
        “We leave tomorrow.”
These are mundane statements, so we don’t worry as much about how precise we are about their reality or unreality.

In a typical Real Conditional , one might say:
        “If my visa is approved, I will start my course next week,”
while it sounds slightly unusual, but not ungrammatical, to say:
        “If my visa is approved, I start my course next week.”

The presence of the Condition Clause itself seems to necessitate a Modal Verb of some sort in most situations. The use of the Present Tense often sounds too real to be appropriate or polite.

For example, one can say:
        “If you finish your chores, we will go to the park,”
        “If you finish your chores, we go to the park,”
sounds ungramatical in English, probably not due to any Syntactic flaw, but to a cultural expectation that there should be Irrealis.

Unreal Conditionals

As a Dependent Clause, Irrealis in the Condition Clause is conveyed with either:

  • the Subjunctive Mood; or
  • the Step Back in Time

Formal English grammar makes much of the Subjunctive Mood, since it is what I call a ‘marker of good speech’. There is no significant difference in meaning when the Subjunctive is used; its purpose is strictly one of Register – it marks formal English or ‘high-class’ speech. Subjunctives are extremely useful for this reason and they are essential in formal or academic written English. However, the Step Back in Time (as I call it) is the standard marker of Irrealis in casual and semi-formal modern spoken English. I predict in 100 years time, Subjunctive Mood will no longer be generally used in English.

The Step Back in Time works as follows. In a Real Conditional we can describe the present with the Present Tense:
        “If you build it, they will come.”
In an Unreal Conditional, we describe the present/future in the Conditional Clause with the Past Tense:
        “If you built it, they would come.”
Real Conditionals in the past are unusual, but only because there is not much need for them, as we seldom make logical predictions about real events in the past. For example we could say:
        “If he met his friends, he had a good time,”
which would express (by the lack of Irrealis) our complete certainty that if the condition was met, the outcome happened. Unreal Past Conditionals are very common, because the human mind has evolved to play over past events and imagine what could have happened differently, thus the Unreal Past Conditional describes something that didn’t happen. The Step Back in Time transforms the Past Tense into the Past Perfect Tense, such as:
        “If he had met his friends, he would have had a good time.”

The Construction of Conditionals

The following diagram shows a more detailed look at the construction of Real and Unreal Conditionals.

conditionals detailedOne thing to note (indicated by the sets of arrows between the clauses) is that any Condition Clause (past, present or future) can be applied to any Main Clause. The only requirement is that they be logical. Certain combinations are rare and unusual, but only because the things they express are uncommon.

For example, in a Real Conditional, one could combine a Future Condition, in the Present Tense, with a Past Main Clause, in the Past Tense:
        “Well, if he comes to work tomorrow, he didn’t die!”
This kind of construction is perfectly grammatical – although isn’t the kind of thing speakers usually have cause to say.

In the Unreal part of the diagram above, bold type indicates that this is the standard form. Italic type indicates various forms the Subjunctive. Grey parentheses indicate that the constructions are uncommon. In all cases, the Subjunctive forms are the more formal forms; and these are the appropriate forms to use in formal and Academic English, although are not as necessary in Business English.

The Subjunctive has three forms:

  • The present Subjuntive:
            “I have one, should you request it;”
  • The Past or  Imperfect Subjuntive:
            “I would give you one, were you to request it;”
    The Past Subjunctive can also be expressed as “if you were to request it,” without the Subject-Verb inversion.
  • And the Past perfect or Pluperfect Subjunctive:
            “I would have given you one, had you requested it.”
    The Past Perfect Subjunctive is simply the Past Perfect with a Subject-Verb inversion.

The Present Subjunctive is quite unusual, and in modern English it is reserved for very polite or formal expressions, though it is frequently used in certain contexts and is common when speaking to hotel guests or to high-status customers or clients (should any guest wish to depart early, please make arrangements with the staff.”)

Note that with “to be” verbs (or the Copula, as “to be” is rightly known), the Subjunctive is the standard form in Conditionals. In casual English one can say:
        “If I was you, I wouldn’t do that,”
but this is not grammatical even in standard English and certainly not in formal English. We say:
        “If I were you, I wouldn’t do that,”
which is the Imperfect Subjunctive form.

The form, “if I were to be,” – the Were Subjunctive plus the Infinitive (were + to be) can be used to describe the present, but is typically used to describe the future, especially when the speaker wishes to emphasise that they do not believe that the condition will occur. This is a useful expression in business English when such shades of meaning with regard to expectation are often necessary.

For example, one could say to a client:
        “If that were to happen, we would implement our contingency plan,”
which emphasises that we do not expect the event to happen. This can be important in a business context, as you often need to discuss possibilities without conceding that they are particularly probable. In fact, when you use the “were to happen” form you are subtly saying, “this is not going to happen!”

No mixing of Real and Unreal

Generally, it is ungrammatical to mix Real and Unreal Conditionals. There are a small number of expressions that allow this, but they are exceptions.

For example, one can say:
        “If you had asked me, I would have helped you,” (Unreal Past);
but it is completely ungrammatical in all Registers to say:
        “If you had done that, I helped you;” (Unreal Past with Real Past).
This example sounds like nonsense (although Shakespeare occasionally uses constructions like this). However, it is also ungrammatical in formal English, although acceptable in spoken (especially casual) English to say:
        “If you do that, I would help you,” (Real Present with Unreal Present).
One might even wish to say:
        “If you were to have problems, I will come to your aid immediately,”
quite logically using an Unreal Condition (to emphasise that you don’t expect this) with a Real Main Clause (to emphasise that you will definitely assist), but it is also ungrammatical in formal English; it sounds wrong, although it doesn’t sound horribly wrong. Shakespeare could do this, but you and I aren’t supposed to.

We can mix Real and Unreal in modern English, but we need to make a break in the Syntax for it to work. Taking one of the examples above, (“if you do that, I would help you,”) which is ungrammatical, we can make it grammatical by saying something like:
      “If you do that , you know that I would help you,”
where the Would-Modal is inserted in a Subordinate Clause within a Real Main Clause. Since it’s no longer directly Syntactically connected to the Condition Clause, the Syntactic requirement for Irrealis to agree doesn’t exist and it sounds grammatical.

As discussed below, this clear distinction between Real and Unreal is a modern phenomenon, and in Shakespearean English, Real and Unreal Conditions were mixed quite freely and beautifully. In contemporary English, there are still a few situations where Real and Unreal Clauses can be mixed, but they are specific and need to be used carefully.

For example, one can say:
        “If you were to need one, I have a car you can borrow,”
which mixes an Unreal Condition Clause with a Present Main Clause. In this instance, the Main Clause is in the ‘perpetual present’ (the Habitual Aspect) and it seems to be the use of this Aspect that allows this class of exceptions. When the Habitual Aspect is not present, the Past Subjunctive is not used. For example, one might say:
        “If you were to need a spare item, there is a delivery in five minutes,”
but it isn’t fully grammatical and it contradicts typical usage (again, it isn’t horribly wrong – it just doesn’t really sound natural).

Another particular set of expressions that are exceptions to this rule are those involving the Present Subjunctive (the Should form of the Subjunctive), which are very polite and old-fashioned, and thus seem to follow the older grammatical rules. For example the following:

Should you wish to depart early,            please make arrangements.
Present Subjunctive (Unreal)                                    :       Simple Present (Real)  

The Main Clause in this  example is in the Imperative Mood (for orders and instructions), so it is not a strictly Real Clause. However, one can also say:
        “Should you need help, tonight the receptionist will be on duty until 11pm,”
which is a clear mixing of Unreal and Real, and yet sounds perfectly grammatical in English. If you need to mix an Unreal Condition Clause with a Real Main Clause, this is the way to do it. In fact, it even possible to construct a Past form of this Conditional:
        “Should you have needed help, the receptionist was available.”
This form is fully grammatical, although it is rare.

The First, Second, Third and Zero Conditional

In English teaching, we generally categorise Conditionals into the First, Second, Third and Zero Conditional; and these are, by far, the four most common Conditionals. The diagram below shows how these constructions relate to Real and Unreal Conditionals generally.

1st2nd3rd4th conditionals

The First Conditional is the usual future Conditional in English:
      “If you call, I will come running.”

The Zero Conditional (second on the diagram) often uses the Habitual Aspect
      “If I wake up alive, it is a good day.”

However, it doesn’t have to use the Habitual Aspect. We can use it to make a single true statement about the world:
      “If she is there, he is there” or “if she is there, he must be there.”
(If-Must Conditionals are usually Present Tense Zero Conditionals). This example is not in Habitual Aspect, it simply expresses logical certainty.

As shown in the diagram, the First and Zero Conditionals are Real Conditionals; and the Second  and Third Conditionals are Unreal Conditionals.

The Second Conditional is the Conditional of the unreal present/future:
      “Even if I explained, you wouldn’t understand.”

The Third Conditional is the Conditional of the unreal past:
      “If things had been different, who knows what would have happened.”

All other remaining combinations (and all combinations are possible, as long as Real and Unreal are not mixed, as described above) are referred to as Mixed Conditionals.

American Double Modals (double-Would-Modals)

Double-Would-Modal Conditional constructions are not grammatical in modern British English, or formal or Academic English generally, but they are a common feature of American English. Similar constructions exist in other European languages, and Europeans who are learning English often need to be careful to avoid these constructions in formal language.

For example, an American speaker might say:
      “If I would have done that, it would have been a disaster,”
but this is completely ungrammatical in British English and in all variants of formal English, although I have seen it here and there in American newspaper and magazine articles. It’s a perfectly logical construction and, as described in the last section of this post, it was grammatical in Shakespeare’s time. In the future, there is a high probability that these constructions will again become grammatical, but as it stands today they are not.

Reported Speech

Reported Speech has its own rules about the use of Irrealis; and the constructions are complex with variations of their own. These will be discussed in a separate post.

Use of Modal Verbs (‘touch wood!’)

All Modal Verbs, even Will, convey some degree of Irrealis, since Will expresses subjective certainty – the attitude that the speaker is certain (or nearly certain) about the truth of a statement. Only the unmarked Verb expresses a complete absence of Irrealis. Will is usually used to talk about the future, but it can be used to talk about the present.

For example, the following two sentences mean the same thing, and are both describing the present:
        “If it is 6 o’clock, they will have left work,”
        “If it is 6 o’clock, they have left work,” 
but the second statement (“they have left work“) expresses more certainty; their leaving work is expressed as bare fact (“they have left work – it’s a fact”), whereas the first (“they will have left work,”) could be rephrased as, “I am personally certain that they have left work.”

English speakers are very unlikely to speak of unknown facts, however probable, with zero Irrealis (i.e. with the natural Verb.) In my opinion, there are cultural reasons for this. When we speak of future events that we hope will happen, using less Irrealis than is logically justified, English speakers sometimes say, “touch wood,” a superstitious ‘magic’ expression that seeks to remove the bad luck that we have incurred in ‘tempting fate’ by claiming to know the future.

For example:
        “I will sign the contract tomorrow – touch wood!”

For this reason, unmarked Verbs, in the natural tense, are typically only used in the Zero Conditional to describe situations about which we have actual certain knowledge based on experience. Thus, they are overwhelmingly used with the Habitual Aspect, a usage that conveys the past, present and future, that (since it includes the past) we have actual knowledge of.

For example, one can say:
        “It is school policy that, if it rains, events are held the following weekend.”
This usage suggests such occurrences have happened in the past and will happen again in the future. (In class, I call this Habitual use of Present Tense ‘infinite time’, but it is also known as the ‘perpetual present’).

It would not sound correct to say:
        “If it rains tomorrow, events are held the following weekend.”
Instead we must say:
        “If it rains tomorrow, events will be held the following weekend.”
However, it is not for purely grammatical reasons that the second sentence sounds wrong, because one can use the natural Verb to say:
        “If you don’t come to work tomorrow, you don’t have a job,”
which sounds grammatical even in formal English, as the natural Verb, conveying the statement as a bare fact, makes cultural sense in the context of a very strong threat or warning.

Modal Verbs and Reality

As we have seen, all Modal Verbs convey some degree of Irrealis, expressing ideas that in some way may differ from reality. We talk about:

  • Things that may happen (possibility or permission) or that could happen (possibility);
  • Things that should happen (obligation or logical necessity);
  • Things that can happen (potential or ability);
  • Things that would happen (hypothetically), but probably won’t;
  • Things that will happen (subjective certainty);
  • And even things that must happen (emphatic obligation or emphatic subjective certainty).

If we think about the Real and Unreal as two frames of reference (similar to Tense), most Modal Verbs describe some Irrealis, but most of them occur within the frame of the Real – they describe uncertainty, but uncertainty about the real world. Only Would, when used as the Modal of hypothetical situations, is exclusive to the Unreal frame.

However, Would has another meaning and another use – it is also the Modal of zero obligation. We use it in polite speech to indicate we are fully respecting the autonomy of the hearer, not speaking for them, not assuming we know what they think and not placing any expectation or obligation on them. For example one can say:
        “If you are meeting Mikhail, I would love to join you.”
In this case, Would is not Unreal and doesn’t place us in the Unreal, hypothetical, frame. This construction is a Zero Conditional, stating a fact about the world; and it could be rephrased as:
        “if you are meeting Mikhail, I want to join you, but there is no pressure.”
In fact, the sociolinguistic pressure to use Would when making such requests is very strong (particularly in British Standard English) and the latter sentence sounds quite forward and a little impolite.

The following diagram indicates the typical uses of Modal Verbs:

real and unreal modals_2

Certain Modal Verbs can be used in both the Real and Unreal frames. Might, Should and Could can be used in an Unreal (hypothetical) frame to add extra nuances that Would does not convey. In the Unreal frame, they have two shades of Irrealis.

In the Real frame (assumed in the absence of a Condition Clause):
        “I could do that,”
means, “I have the choice or power to do that,” (indicating potential.)
In the Unreal frame:
        “If I were richer, I could come with you,”
means, “if I were richer I would have the choice or power to come with you.”
In the Unreal frame, Could expresses two shades of Irrealis: the hypothetical and the potential.

May and Might

I have been asked several times in class to describe the difference between May and Might, since both Modals when used outside of Conditionals mean something almost identical. However, only Might can also be used in the Unreal frame. Thus both the following sentences:
        “He may say yes. He might say yes,”
both mean, “there is a possibility of him saying yes,” although some hearers might infer a slightly greater degree of uncertainty when Might is used.
Whereas the sentence:
        “If you asked him, he might say yes,”
means, “if you asked him, there would be a possibility of him coming,” thus there is a double sense of Irrealis – there is a possibility, but that possibility is hypothetical and only exists if the condition is met. 

Might, therefore, seems to have some innate suggestion of an Unreal frame, hence perhaps a little more uncertainty (although this extra Irrealis is often absent in real-life use), even when used outside of Conditionals. And it is worth noting that in Reported Speech (to be discussed in another post), Might is the Past Tense of May; it is May with the extra Irrealis of the Step Back in Time applied.

– . –

That’s the end of the lesson! For those of you who love literature, here are some examples of Conditionals, drawn from Shakespeare’s Henry V.

Examples of Conditionals from Shakespearean and modern English

Shakespeare’s Henry V is written in poetry and prose in Elizabethan English. English at this time had just undergone a transformation so significant that it marks the transition point between two major variants of English: Middle English and Modern English. During this period of Linguistic change, England experienced a period of destructive civil war: termed the Wars of the Roses; and a religious-political revolution involving persecution, artistic and cultural destruction and purges: the Protestant Reformation. Writing Henry V, Shakespeare was looking from a society that had just emerged from this period of upheaval, back at a society that was just about to undergo it.

Shakespearean English was a  grammatically freer and richer variety of English than contemporary English (PDE, or Present Day English). It allows the use of formal Inflections (e.g. “thou thinkest; he thinketh“); it allows for greater variety in sentence ordering, especially more movement of the Main Verb; and overall it has more of the fine quality of brevity than English today. Nevertheless, it contains almost all the elements of contemporary English, including forms of all the modern Conditionals.

Shakespearean Conditionals differ from those of contemporary English in two main respects.

  • The typical Future Conditional in Shakespeare uses the Present Subjunctive in the Condition Clause (and sometimes even the Main Clause). It is an Unreal Present Conditional.
    As noted above, this form is possible in Contemporary English, but only in very mannered speech (“If you should ever have call to visit me at the Palace, I should be delighted to entertain you”). Shakespeare can use the Should-form of the Present Subjunctive (“Shouldst thou bid it, thy servant cometh.”), as well as the bare form (without Should): (be he unruly, my wrath shall fall upon him.”) Contemporary English can only use the Should-form in Conditionals (“Should the need arise, a replacement will be arranged.”)

Rather than an Unreal Future Conditional the typical contemporary English Future Conditional (the First Conditional), uses the Simple Present in the Condition Clause and a Will-Modal in the Main Clause (“If you come round, I’ll make you a coffee”).

Condition Clause;                       Main Clause
If it be thus,                    it be ever thus
Shakespearean: Present Subjunctive in both clauses

It if is this way now,     it will always be this way.
PDE:* Simple Present;                      Will-modal
*Present Day English

  • The second big difference between Shakespearean and Present Day English, is that Shakespeare was free to mix Real and Unreal clauses, which is usually ungrammatical in Conditionals in Contemporary English. There are examples of this below.

Examples from Henry V

The play begins with the clerics, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, discussing Henry’s claim to the French throne.

If it pass against us,
We lose the better half of our possession:

Here is a Future Conditional of the sort mentioned, Shakespeare’s default Future Conditional, using the Present Subjunctive in the Condition Clause (“if it pass” – the bare form of the Subjunctive); and also probably in the Main Clause (“We lose“), although it is the same form as the Simple Present for this verb. In Contemporary English, we would say:
“If it goes against use, we will lose over half our territory.”

If you grow
foul with me, Pistol, I will scour you with my
rapier, as I may, in fair terms: if you would walk
off, I would prick your guts a little,

Here, the commoners, Henry’s fellow rascals when he was wild Prince Hal, fall out over a woman’s affections. Nym threatens Pistol with two different Condition Clauses: the first (“If you grow foul with me, I will scour you with my rapier”) could be a modern First Conditional, or the Condition Clause may be using the Present Subjunctive (they are the same in form).

His second threat (“if you would walk off, I would prick your guts,”) is an interesting example of the WouldWould construction noted above, (“if you would say it, I would do it.”) As mentioned above, this sort of construction is ungrammatical in contemporary British English, but is  a common construction in spoken American English, and is also a grammatical false friend for many European English learners.

If little faults, proceeding on distemper,
Shall not be wink’d at, how shall we stretch our eye
When capital crimes, chew’d, swallow’d and digested,
Appear before us?

In this passage, Henry is exchanging friendly banter with three conspirators plotting to kill him, who are unaware that he and his barons know of their plot. Somewhat similarly to the Would-Would construction above, this is a Shall-Shall construction, (“if faults shall not be winked at, How shall we react?”) . These are also not grammatical modern in Standard English.

We would say:

“If little faults are not to be winked at, how are we supposed to react when capital crimes  are presented to us?”

Where Shakespeare uses “shall” to suggest the future, we can use the “are not to be winked at,” an Infinitive construction which, like the “were to be” Future Unreal Conditional described above, specifically suggests the future (rather than Unreal present/future); or, in plain modern English, we could also say:

“If we don’t turn a blind eye to little faults, how will we react when we encounter capital crimes?”

 Henry V is a favourite Shakespeare hero, but Shakespeare doesn’t shy from showing the side of Henry as a paranoid tyrant. In a long, enraged, raving speech, Henry rails at the conspirators:

If that same demon that hath gull’d thee thus
Should with his lion gait walk the whole world,
He might return to vasty Tartar back,

This form has the Should form of the Present Subjunctive with a Might-Modal in the Main Clause (which in Present Day English could indicate either a Real or Unreal Main Clause). This form is still grammatical in Present Day English, and we could express something very similar:

“If that same demon who has deceived you should walk the world, he might even return to vast Tartary.”

Next we are back with Pistol, Bardolph and Nym, Henry’s erstwhile friends. They are lamenting the death of Sir John Falstaff, the comic rogue of the Henry IV plays.

he’s in Arthur’s
bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom.

This is a Real Conditional with a Past Condition and a Present Main Clause. In Present Day English, this could be classified as a form of the Zero Conditional, in that it is making a true statement about the world. We would say:

“If ever any man went to Arthur’s bosom, he is in Arthur’s bosom.”

This is a very Real and very modern-sounding Conditional. The low status characters often speak a more modern-sounding form of English to our ears. Both Clauses are in the Third Person Singular, so it can be seen that they are not in any form of Subjunctive.

Therefore in fierce tempest is he coming,
In thunder and in earthquake, like a Jove,
That, if requiring fail, he will compel;

Here Exeter, Henry’s envoy, strides into the French court and threatens the King of France in a warlike and aggressive fashion. This is a typical Shakespearean future conditional, with a little more Irrealis than we would apply in Present Day English, supplied by the Present Subjunctive (“if requiring fail”.) We would probably express this as, “if requiring fails, he will compel.” 

In Present Day English, we can also use the Present Subjunctive, although we would have to use the Should form, (“if requiring should fail, he will compel.”) Shakespeare was free to use natural Tenses in his Condition Clauses (Real Conditionals) and occasionally does, but use of the Present Subjunctive is standard in Elizabethan English. The difference is possibly cultural. Pre-enlightenment society was a more religious and superstitious society, aware that humans have no certain knowledge or power over the future, whereas we live in a scientific and rationalistic culture, more prone to treat the future as a logical equation.

now he weighs time
Even to the utmost grain: that you shall read
In your own losses, if he stay in France.

The menaces continue, and become more menacing! This construction, (“if he stay in France, you shall experience losses.”) is exactly like the previous construction – a Present Subjunctive with a Shall/Will Modal. Despite the use of Present Subjunctive, this is a low-Irrealis construction for Shakespeare and Exeter is making a very real threat.

Let’s jump to the eve of the battle – the most well-known section of the play, containing some of its most profound and beautiful passages. The Welsh officer, Captain Fluellen – a wonderful character, intelligent and thoughtful, who speaks in a Welsh-English dialect, but is not a stereotype – is lecturing some of Henry’s troops about battlefield discipline.

if you would take the pains but to
examine the wars of Pompey the Great, you shall
find, I warrant you, that there is no tiddle toddle
nor pibble pabble in Pompey’s camp;

The Would Modal here is perhaps both a polite and hypothetical Would, and perhaps also ‘hortative’ (exhorting or encouraging). He combines Would in the Condition Clause with Shall in the Main Clause, (“if you would study, you shall find.”) This is not properly grammatical in modern English, but we have variant of the First Conditional that allows Would in a Real Condition Clause; we can say:
        “if you would care to study Pompey, you will find…”
but this does not convey quite the same meaning, being too soft and polite. We would probably say something like, “if you study Pompey, you will find there is no chitter-chatter in Pompey’s camp.”

Our forms are more bourgeois than Shakespeare; the middle classes can’t speak to each other in the elegant, mannered speech of Shakespeare’s characters. This is sociolinguistic, a little bit Protestant perhaps, a deliberate plainness of speech. As beautiful as many of Shakespeare’s constructions are, the Elizabethan use of Irrealis would sound socially wrong and overwrought in modern English.

Still on the eve of battle, the action moves to Henry himself, who is wandering incognito among his troops. He gets into conversation with one of his officers, who, not knowing he is talking to the king, blames the king (and monarchs generally) for the ‘bad deaths’ of those who die in battle without having confessed their sins.

Now, if these men do not die well, it
will be a black matter for the king that led them to
it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of

This may well be a straight, modern First Conditional, (“if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king”), nice and strong, uttered by a lower-class character speaking a modern form of English. However, the Present Subjunctive is almost identical in form to the Present Tense (except in the Third Person Singular), so the Condition Clause could also be in the Present Subjunctive. However, the phrasing is very modern – I feel if it were the Present Subjunctive, it would be phrased more like, “if these men die not well.”

There is another modal within the Main Clause, not connected to the Conditional but in a Relative Clause attached to the Main Clause, (“…for the king that led them, whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.“) We might express this as, “…for the king, whom to disobey would go against their role as subjects.” It would not be grammatical to use the Were Subjunctive (the Imperfect or Past Subjunctive) in this Clause, because it is not a Condition Clause, which is the only place this Subjunctive can be used in modern English.

In fact, the phrasing, “whom to disobey would be,” sounds archaic these days. In contemporary English we would probably phrase this in a sort of Cleft Construction, using a dummy subject (“it”), “…for the king, whom it would go against the nature of their subjecthood to disobey.”  This is an ugly disjointed construction with an unnecessary break in the Syntax, compared to the smooth Syntax of Shakespeare, but it is the kind of thing we often say.

This is not a true Cleft Construction, but a type of one. A true Cleft Construction has a dummy subject with connected to a Noun Phrase in a Subordinate Clause, such as:

It                          was                   money          that he wanted.
Subject (Dummy)         Copula (verb)           Predicate            Subordinate Clause (with a tensed verb)

The example I provided:

It                          would be         against their subjecthood          to disobey.
Subject (Dummy)         Copula (verb)         Predicate                                                        Non-Finite Dependent Clause

So it isn’t a true Cleft Construction, as the Non-Finite Clause (the Infinitive “to disobey”) isn’t a full Subordinate Clause, not having a tensed verb. I’m not entirely sure what kind of Clause this is – it isn’t a Complement Clause or a Purpose Clause, which are the usual Clause types that contain an Infinitive. It’s actually a very interesting construction – it is Cleft, in the sense that one of the Arguments of the Copula (“to disobey,”) has moved from Subject position into the Dependent Clause) – but it uses an Infinitive Clause. It is not one of the commonly listed Clause types that use the Infinitive; and yet it is a common English construction.

Anyway, enough of this tangent that has nothing to do with Shakespeare or Conditionals…

King Henry replies with a wisely philosophical and slightly legalistic argument; and a relevant argument in an age in which many try to justify their crimes by claiming they were only following orders. He explains that kings and soldiers are each responsible for their own sins, kings for giving sinful orders and soldiers for committing sinful acts; and that neither can blame the other. The following Conditional comes from this speech:

Besides, there is no
king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to
the arbitrement of swords, can try it out with all
unspotted soldiers:

This is yet another typical Shakespearean Conditional: the Present Subjunctive in the Condition Clause and a Can Modal standing in for a Will Modal in the Main Clause, (“if it come to the decision of swords, no king can try it out with all unspotted soldiers.”) As with the previous examples, to convey the same meaning in Present Day English, we would have to use a Real Conditional (with the Can Modal this could be described as either a First or Zero Conditional – I would simply describe it as a Real Conditional), with a “to be” marker emphasising a future event; and again we would be likely to add a pointless, modern dummy subject (“things”), “if things are to be decided by swords, no king can attempt battle with morally-untainted soldiers.”

Williams, the soldier he is conversing with then replies that if they (the soldiers) all die and the king subsequently allows himself to be ransomed, which he promised he wouldn’t, they would never know; to which Henry replies ironically that if that were to happen, he would never trust the king again (i.e. himself) – a classic dry Shakespearean joke. Williams is not in on the irony and becomes angry, yelling, “’tis a foolish saying.”  Henry then reprimands him (still incognito):

Your reproof is something too round: I should be
angry with you, if the time were convenient.

This form, a Second Conditional with a Should Subjunctive in the Condition Clause, is still used in polite constructions. Modernised slightly, this exact construction could be used, although it would sound a little old-fashioned and Jane Austen-ish: “Your reproof is somewhat too bold. I should be angry with you if it were a convenient time.” Again I’ve used an ugly disjointed construction with a dummy Subject, (“if it were a convenient time,” as opposed to, “if the time were convenient,”) as these are simply common constructions in contemporary English.

The sun rises; the battle-lines are drawn; and Henry addresses his troops. This is the part of the play that audiences have loved for generations – and that made Laurence Olivier’s film version, produced during the Second World War, such an effective piece of wartime propaganda.

God be wi’ you, princes all; I’ll to my charge:
If we no more meet till we meet in heaven,
Then, joyfully, my noble Lord of Bedford,
My dear Lord Gloucester, and my good Lord Exeter,
And my kind kinsman, warriors all, adieu!

As with the earlier examples, though the Condition Clause, (“if we no more meet,”) looks like the Present Tense (like a modern Real Conditional), it is actually the Present Subjunctive. The Main Clause has no Verb – it is an expletive: “adieu!” (and ironic that it should be in French, given they are fighting the French.)

“If we no more meet, warriors adieu,” the basic sentence, is grammatically acceptable in modern English (though it sounds very archaic). Present Day English has a more restrictive Syntax than Shakespeare’s flowing lines; and when spoken, we need a distinct pause to allow the expletive (“adieu”) to act as Main Clause.

Present Day English has a very rigid Syntax, including in Conditionals. We need some sort of connector to allow a non-standard Main Clause, even if that connector is simply a pause. A modern equivalent (the First Conditional) “if we do not meet again: goodbye,” works, with a dramatic pause after “again.”, Alternatively, one could say, “if we don’t meet again, then goodbye!” This would not require the pause, as the insertion of a “then” connector between Clauses allows us to put a greater variety of constructions, such as expletives (like “adieu”, “goodbye,” or “what a waste of time!”), in the Main Clause.

For example:
        “If it doesn’t work… what a waste of time!”
requires a spoken pause between Clauses, whereas:
        “If it doesn’t work, then what a waste of time!”
can be expressed without such a marked pause.

Anyway, back to the battle!

We’re on the very edge; the tension is at its height! Henry exhorts his men one last time with a lovely simple Conditional:

All things are ready, if our minds be so.

This is a classic line! And an interesting Conditional. The Condition Clause (“if our minds be so”) again has the Present Subjunctive; but the Main Clause (“all things are ready,”) is in natural Tense – the Present Tense. This is a very effective combination of Real and Unreal. The Irrealis in the Condition Clause puts the burden on the hearer – our minds may or may not be ready, that is up to you – but the Real Main Clause makes the outcome certain and is highly encouraging: “if our minds should be made ready, then all things are definitely ready.” Furthermore, with the Condition Clause following the Main Clause, there is a lovely surprise – “all things are ready,” without Irrealis, is a plain statement; so we only realise it is a Conditional when the Condition Clause follows it. The mind feels, yes! it’s all ready; then he pulls us back slightly, adding Irrealis, snatching our certainty from us; certainty that can only be regained if our minds should be ready too!

We can use this combination of Moods in polite modern English, but it doesn’t express in modern English what it expresses for Shakespeare. “All things are ready, if our minds should be ready” sounds far weaker in modern English. We could use the straight Zero Conditional, “all things are ready if our minds are ready,” but it lacks the nuance and the juxtaposition of Real and Unreal that Shakespeare’s version has. We simply lack the Linguistic flexibility to make this simple and stirring statement in modern English with the same subtlety and power as Shakespeare could.

The battle is fought; the French are defeated. There are some final patriotic speeches (a little laughable some of them); and then Shakespeare, the master of portraying the complexities of the world, does something surprising. The Duke of Burgundy, as mediator between France and England, gives a beautiful and eloquent plea for peace, movingly condemning the destructive irrationality of war.

Henry replies with his demands, including this conditional, with clause piled upon clause like a contract:

If, Duke of Burgundy, you would the peace,
Whose want gives growth to the imperfections
Which you have cited, you must buy that peace
With full accord to all our just demands;
Whose tenors and particular effects
You have enscheduled briefly in your hands.

For the discerning reader, viewer or audience member, Shakespeare’s Henry V is far from a simple hero – he is a very complex character, beloved by his people, but with an extremely dark side. The totality of the play is a subtle portrayal of the relationship between the architypical charismatic but deeply troubled autocrat and his too-often too-adoring subjects.

The Conditional here, (“if you would peace, you must buy it with full accord to our just demands,”) is rendered a little opaque by the use the verb Would. This is not a modal here; it is the Elizabethan form of “want” (bearing in mind “want” in Elizabethan English means “lack”), although it probably does have have some innate Irrealis (like “wish” in modern English). This is just another Zero Conditional, very Real, quite modern and not especially chivalrous. We would say:

“If you want that peace, the absence of which is the cause of your grievances, you must buy it by being in full accordance with our just demands, the details of which you have, briefly laid out, in your hands.”

Audiences must have a happy ending, and what better happy ending than a love story. Henry woos Princess Katherine of France, a charming and naive maiden. There’s some irony here, too, since she herself later evolves into a cruel and bitter autocrat in the Henry VI plays; but for now, it’s all candlelight and roses. The final love scene is wonderful, and includes this Conditional at its climax.

If thou would have such a one, take
me; and take me, take a soldier; take a soldier,
take a king. And what sayest thou then to my love?
speak, my fair, and fairly, I pray thee.

There’s a polite-Would Modal in the Condition Clause again (“if you would have such a one,”), more polite and courtly than hypothetical (expressing the Irrealis of respect for the hearer’s autonomy), but with a bit of both Moods. The Main Clause is a glorious lover’s Imperative, (take me!”)

Shakespeare’s construction:
        “If you would have such a one, take me,”

is a standard form in Shakespearean English and is still grammatical in modern English, although it sounds far too mannered to sound like a genuine passionate lover. In modern English there’s no perfect way to be as romantic as this. We could say:
        “If you would like to have such a one as me, take me,”
but it sounds terribly weak, like she’s being offered a drink. Or we could say:
        “Were you to want such a one as me, take me,”
which is grammatical and sweet, though also weak, and painfully old-fashioned and Anthony-Hopkins-ish. Or we could say:
        “If you wanted someone like me, take me,”
which is standard modern English, somewhat plain and a little unromantic, but not too bad to the modern ear. Alternatively, an English speaker may even say something very bourgeois and plain, with a self-deprecating Could-Modal in the Condition Clause, like:

        “If you could take someone like me, take me.”

So that’s the end of the play. They live happily after, but not ever after, just briefly – the last days of calm before the massive storm that tore England apart (the Wars of the Roses, brilliantly documented in the Henry VI plays and Richard III).

Present Day English has nothing on Early Modern English (Shakespeare’s English). Compared to the language of Henry V, our English is inflexible, plain and overly structured – Shakespeare’s English is flexible and flowing. He could apply shades of meaning, including combinations of Real and Irrealis constructions that would sound alien and mediaeval today.

(c) 2015 Chris Watson