All the Love for English Past Tenses

The English language has something as romantic as an unreal past. What is that – a past that is not real? Is it because it never happened? Never will? It´s actually a down-to-earth grammatical term and it refers to situations that are not real, because did not happen. But the beauty I still see in it is the distance the past manages to encompass.

Only it´s not the distance in time the past usually sets, but the distance from reality, from things that actually did happen.

The unreal past is often used in conditional sentences or in situations that express wishes or regrets. Broken down, it´s the use of past tenses – past simple and past perfect mostly – for hypothetical situations that might exist at some point, but did not yet.

As such, these past tenses do not express the real past tense – actions and situations that happened at some point in the past, before the present moment. We thus use the past tense with conditional words and expressions to talk about wishes and regrets. Sometimes, the form of the verb is in the grammatical past tense, but the situation is very much in the present.

Here are some examples:

If only I had more time to write on my blog. The time that I lack to write on my blog is a present situation; only I express the wish to have more time, right now or in the future. The distance is between the reality and my wish.

What if you fell in love with the monster? You probably didn´t yet fall in love with the monster, but it is a possibility. Nevertheless, as long as it´s a possibility, it´s not yet real; hence the distance from reality.

Marvin wishes he´d had more money when he was in his 20s. Marvin has a present regret for a situation in the past that never happened: he never had more money when he was in his 20s. And he is not a 20-year-old anymore. His regret is very much distanced from reality.

What I honestly find linguistically romantic in the unreal English past has mostly to do with the comparison to how other languages express situations that are far from reality. Some use conditionals, others use subjunctives; yet English has found a way to express distance both in time and from reality.

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