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The fragment did not pass by the formation, but executed a thirty-degree turn, and, without slowing down, sped straight toward Infinite Frontier. In the roughly two seconds it took to cover that distance, the computer actually dropped its alert from level two back to level three, concluding that the fragment wasn’t actually a physical object due to the fact that its motion was impossible under aerospace mechanics. At twice the third cosmic velocity, executing a sharp turn without a drop in speed was like slamming into an iron wall. If it was a vessel containing a metal block, the change in direction would have exerted such force as to flatten that metal block into a thin film. So the fragment had to be an illusion.

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The Dark Forest (Remembrance of Earth's Past)
Cixin Liu

Hi. I previously asked about this sentence here. https://forum.wordreference.com/threads/if-it-was-a-vessel-the-change-in-direction-would-have.360...

Some people think the underlined sentence is wrong while some others think it is valid. How would you analyse it? Is it really wrong? Or it's just loosely written counterfactuals?

Thank you.

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zuotengdazuoSome people think the underlined sentence is wrong

I suppose they wanted 'had been' instead of 'was'. Or maybe they wanted 'would exert' instead of 'would have exerted'. In any case they wanted a pure second conditional or a pure third conditional. Maybe they have an aversion to mixed conditionals.

Nevertheless, it is common to use 'was' or 'were' where 'had been' is expected in an if-clause. Odd as it may seem, this "mixed" combination can often be interpreted as a real past in the if-clause with a hypothetical past in the main clause.

Put me in the group with those who accept the sentence as correct.


Examples found online.

With if ... was

If this was a large company, the teamwork and process would have been different.
If he was coming to college, he would have clearly stated his intentions by now.
If Greece was located 8,000 miles from Frankfurt,it would have defaulted by now.
The UN mission would have collapsed already if there was a credible alternative.
Surely if this was false, Dallas would have demanded a retraction or sued.
I couldn't find exactly when but if it was after 26 April he would have been 47.
If this series was around in my prime I would have been amped to be a part of it.
If all data was immediately disclosed, panic would have been intensified.
If I was The Gap I would have countered the backlash by changing my logo.
If that was a TV series, it would have been canceled.


With if ... were

Chances are that these items would have been hot buys if they were sold on eBay.
The Panthers would have looked good if they were on the field by themselves.
Obviously if we were able to make a deal earlier, we would have had no exposure.
If you were alive in 1956, you would have heard about it as soon as it happened.
It would have remained a dark secret if those areas were not now being dredged.


The same pattern occurs with 'if ... had', but much less often.

With if ... had

She would have made her son leave school if he had an alcohol problem.
No one was killed, but do you think that if the attacker had a gun there would have been no fatalities?
If they had the program when my kids were in school, I would have taken advantage of it.

Surprisingly perhaps, you can even find a non-stative verb in this pattern once in a great while:

If I didn't get the foods I liked when I was younger, I would have chosen death.

CJ

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zuotengdazuoSome people think the underlined sentence is wrong while some others think it is valid.

It is ok.
The only minor issue is that the formal subjunctive form "were" is not in the if-clause. The indicative "was" is used. But English has been losing the subjunctive as the language evolves.

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Comments  

Thank you, CJ and AS.

So can “If it were a vessel containing a metal block, the change in direction would have exerted...” work in the original context?

If it can, what is the difference between “If it was” and “If it were” here?

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zuotengdazuoSo can “If it were a vessel containing a metal block, the change in direction would have exerted...” work in the original context?

Yes.

zuotengdazuoIf it can, what is the difference between “If it was” and “If it were” here?

For most people there is no difference because nowadays there are so many people who use 'was' for a hypothetical situation as well as for a real situation.

In older times 'were' was always the hypothetical and 'was' was the real. Personally, I still feel them like that to a certain extent. And I think there's a tendency for Americans (more than for the British) to feel them like that.

So there are people who feel a slight difference between 'was' and 'were' in the original sentence in the original context.

Personally, I believe 'was' is more appropriate there because the text is already talking about some fragment which exists and is behaving as described there, so the situation seems real to me. However, I don't think I'd even have noticed if the author had used 'were' instead. I would have read right through the passage without pausing to wonder about the word choice.


Of course, all my remarks above apply only to the first and third person singular. All other persons are always 'were'. For them there is no choice between 'was' and 'were'.

CJ

Thank you again.

CalifJimPersonally, I believe 'was' is more appropriate there because the text is already talking about some fragment which exists and is behaving as described there, so the situation seems real to me. However, I don't think I'd even have noticed if the author had used 'were' instead. I would have read right through the passage without pausing to wonder about the word choice.

So if "were" is used here, which would result in a hypothetical situation, does the hypothetical situation refer to the present of the narration, or is it timeless (either past, present, or future) ?

zuotengdazuoSo if "were" is used here, which would result in a hypothetical situation, does the hypothetical situation refer to the present of the narration, or is it timeless (either past, present, or future) ?

I would take it to be a hypothesis about the present of the narration.

CJ

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Thank you again. So this version “If it were a vessel containing a metal block, the change in direction would have exerted such force as to flatten that metal block into a thin film.” is a standard mixed 2/3 conditional, right?
And generally, when we come across a conditional using the pattern “If+past indicative+main clause(hypothetical)”, how do we know whether the if-clause is real past or hypothetical? What kind of clues in the context may shed light?
zuotengdazuoSo this version “If it were a vessel containing a metal block, the change in direction would have exerted such force as to flatten that metal block into a thin film.” is a standard mixed 2/3 conditional, right?

Right.

zuotengdazuoAnd generally, when we come across a conditional using the pattern “If+past indicative+main clause(hypothetical)”, how do we know whether the if-clause is real past or hypothetical? What kind of clues in the context may shed light?

You have to use your judgment to decide whether the situation is happening in real time for the speaker who makes the statement, or whether the speaker is imagining a situation and making a guess about it. Often, it doesn't matter much. Even native speakers tend to use whatever construction pops into their minds first without giving it much thought.

CJ

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