A favorite of both English teachers and apparently the GMAT is the good old hypothetical. Hypothetical means “it’s possible” or “maybe” – “it might happen or it might not happen.”
Hypothetical sentences usually take the form “If ____, then ____” or “_____ must happen, or else _____” “If” this condition occurs, “then” this result is possible or this result will happen.
The problem with hypotheticals (at least for me) is the fact that the verb you use changes depending on the certainty and timing of the result. Every hypothetical has two verbs – one in the “IF” portion and one in the “Then” portion.
The Hypothetical appears in several different forms:
- If X had happened, then Y would also have happened. We are definitely certain here. Had the event X occurred, no question, Y would have followed. Did X happen? I don’t actually know. 🙂 Have you ever seen a movie where Person A says something like “She’s dead!” and Person B says “No! If she had died, I would have known it in my heart.” Is she alive? Maybe – but perhaps Person B is wrong. That isn’t really the point. The point is, person B feels certain that if X, then Y would have occurred. So -> we use the PAST PERFECT (had ____) verb for the “If” part and the CONDITIONAL PERFECT (would have _____) verb for the “Then” part.
- “If she had died, I would have felt it.“
- If X, then Y (always). Notice that this one is very certain. Although it is possible X will not happen (thus the hypothetical), if it does it will CERTAINLY lead to Y. Think of a scientist trying to test whether gravity is real or not. Sure, it’s possible the apple won’t detach from the tree at all (let’s say it’s beginning of the season). But we are 100% positive that if it does detach, it will fall down. Because it happens EVERY TIME, it happens in the past, present, and future. So -> We use the PRESENT tense of the verb for both the “If” and the “Then” parts.
- “If the apple falls from the tree, it falls down.“
- If X, then (usually) Y . Here, we aren’t entirely certain, but usually the result is going to happen. Assume I’m planning what time I should leave tomorrow morning to get to school. Now, I know that on the average day, the trip takes me 15 minutes. I need to be there at 8:00. So I should leave here at about 7:45. That’s on a normal day – about 85% of the time, it works. But what if there is a huge car accident or we are expecting some snow? There is a 15% chance that I should have left earlier. Me leaving at 7:45 and getting there at 8:00 usually happens no matter if it’s yesterday, today, or tomorrow. SO -> We use the PRESENT tense of the verb for both the “If” and “then” parts. BUT! We also add either “can” or “may” before the second verb to show that it is NOT a guaranteed certainty – it’s just possible.
- “If I leave the house at 7:45, I can arrive at 8:00.“
- If X happens this time, then Y will happen after that. We have no specific information about what usually happens. We’re only talking about a specific event in this situation. This sentence is arguing that if some special event occurs, then Y is CERTAINLY going to happen after that. SO -> We use the PRESENT tense of the verb for the “If” part and the FUTURE (will ___) for the “Then” part. Because we add “will” – it shows the certainty we have.
- “If the conference lasts for another hour, I will miss dinner.“
- If X, then Y (but it’s unlikely that X will happen). I like to put these sentences in a snarky or sarcastic tone. You are trying to say that if something unlikely happened, then this would be the result. Now either it’s unlikely because the odds are low (i.e. Zombie Apocalypse happening tomorrow) or because you don’t believe it (i.e. Me going to the city tomorrow). In the first case, I’m being snarky because yeah, what are the odds. In the second case, it’s actually about 20% possible it might happen, I just don’t really think it will. In this situation, we are always talking about future events and we are VERY uncertain. So -> We use the PAST tense or – if the verb is “to be” – “were to”) for the “If” part and (“Would” or “Could”) + PRESENT Verb for the “Then part”.
- “If the Zombie Apocalypse happened, then you would be the first to die“
- “If I were to go to Zhengzhou tomorrow, then I could stop by Walmart on my way home.”
SO WHAT TO LOOK FOR?:
- Usually one or the other side of the “If” / “Then” will be provided for you and will not be underlined. Watch for which verb appears then match it to the other.
- Situation 1: (Had Past) + (Would have Past)
- Situation 2: (Present) + (Present)
- Situation 3: (Present) + (May Present)
- Situation 4: (Present) + (Future)
- Situation 3: (Past) / (Were to ___) + (Would ____) *note no “have” here.