Conditional Sentences

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
CONDITIONAL SENTENCES

In the following, I will explain the different kinds of conditional sentences in Latin, with respect to what tense and what mood is to be used in what context. There won't be examples for every conceivable combination, but for all the most common ones.

1. CONDITIONAL SENTENCES WITH THE INDICATIVE

Generally speaking, one may say that these involve factual conditions, most of the time corresponding to situations where, in English too, a simple indicative would be used in both parts (when there would be no "would"*, no "if it were the case", no "if it should be the case", or similar ideas). When you have simple indicatives in English, you will generally not use the subjunctive in Latin, unless there is something else in the context that would in any case require or justify the subjunctive no matter what the sort of clause (conditional or not) — e.g. if it depends on indirect speech or if the subject is a "general you" (i.e. "you" used in the sense of "one"/"someone"/"anyone" rather than specifically "you" whom I'm talking to).

*That is, no "would" expressing something potential or contrary-to-fact as in "If this happened, he would be glad" or "If you were here, I would be happy", which would require the subjunctive in Latin. "Would" can also be used to denote a habitual action in the past, with a meaning close to that of "used to", as in "Back in the day, if I received a gift, I would be very excited": this is a different thing and this sort of factual (as opposed to potential or contrary-to-fact) "would" translates into Latin with the imperfect indicative. Another use of "would" is to denote the future-in-the-past, as in "The wounded man would die if he wasn't rapidly cared for." This too is a different thing. (See a few posts below.)

1.A. Present and Past Indicative Conditions

The tenses of the verbs used in these will rather often correspond exactly to those used in similar situations in English, as in the following examples:

1) Si vis, veni mecum = "If you want, come with me." (If you want now, in the present: condition concerning a current state of affairs.)

2) Nisi spirat, animal vivere non potest = "If it doesn't breathe, an animal cannot live." (Present tense used to express a general truth.)

3) Si quidem istud fecisti, laudo = "If you have indeed done that/if you indeed did that, that's nice (literally "I praise/approve")." (The condition here is about a fact: "if it is true/if it is a fact that you have done that/did that"; it's quite different from "If you did that (= if you should do that in the future), this or that would happen", which would require the subjunctive.)

4) Magister discipulum, nisi is deliquit, punire non solet = "A teacher usually doesn't punish a pupil unless he's done something wrong." (Here both perfect and present tenses are used to denote a general truth, a situation that repeats in general, with one action — the one in the perfect — preceding the other.)

5) Si amicam non videbat, maestus erat = "If he didn't see his girlfriend, he was sad." (Imperfect denoting a repeated fact in the past, something that was generally true back then.)

6) Me puerum magister meus punire non solebat nisi deliqueram = "When I was a kid, my teacher usually didn't punish me unless I'd done something wrong." (Basically the same sort of situation as in 4), but transferred into the past: imperfect and pluperfect are used to denote a situation that was generally true in the past, with one action — the one in the pluperfect — preceding the other.)

However, there is one kind of situation where one of the tenses used in Latin will regularly differ from the one used in English, owing to Latin's often being more precise than English when it comes to making it clear that one action is completed before another. For example, in English you can say pretty naturally, as a statement of the "general truth" kind, "If I fall, I rise": but Latin would tend to express this idea as si cecidi, resurgo, literally "If I have fallen, I rise". Why? Because you finish falling before you rise; the action of falling is completed before that of rising begins. Only when you have fallen do you rise; you don't rise at the same time as you fall. In English, it's often okay not to express this sort of time relation precisely, and it can sometimes happen in Latin too (after all, the Romans were human beings, who did not always think strictly logically, weighing their every word with mathematical precision), yet Latin has a tendency to indeed express it, more often than English does. The same thing applies to past "general truths": e.g. "If I fell, I rose/I used to rise" = si cecideram, resurgebam (literally "If I had fallen, I rose/I used to rise"). Note that this tendency of Latin to be more precise in expressing the anteriority of an action relatively to another isn't limited to conditional sentences but also applies in other sorts of clauses like temporal or relative clauses. E.g. cum cedidi, resurgo; qui ceciderat, resurgebat.

1.B. Future Conditions

In future conditions in English, the future tense is usually expressed only in the apodosis (the main clause), but not in the protasis (the "if" or similar clause); in the latter, the present tense is generally used even if the meaning is future. For example, take the sentence: "If you come, I'll be glad": the future tense is expressed in "I'll be glad", but "you come" is grammatically in the simple present tense even though it refers to the future. It generally works differently in Latin: in Latin, the future will most of the time be expressed in both parts. Here too, a distinction will often be made depending on whether both actions are to occur simultaneously or one is to be completed before the other. If one is to be completed before the other, it will be in the future perfect. Compare:

1) Si istud facies, hoc faciam = "If you do that (literally "If you shall do that"), I will do this" ---> If you do that, while you do it, I will do this.

2) Si istud feceris, hoc faciam = "If you do that (literally "If you shall have done that"), I will do this" ---> If you do that, after you have done it, I will do this.

3) Si cras apud Marcum eris, dabo tibi librum = "If you're (literally "If you shall be") at Mark's tomorrow, I'll give you the book" ---> If you're at Mark's tomorrow, while you're at Mark's, I'll give you the book.

4) Si Publius ad me litteras miserit, profecto rescribam = "If Publius sends me a letter (literally "shall have sent me a letter"), I'll certainly write back" ---> If Publius sends me a letter, after he's sent me the letter, I'll write back.

Note that here too, like earlier with the perfect/present and pluperfect/perfect examples (si cecidi, resurgo, etc.) there can be a certain amount of leeway as to the choice between the two constructions ("si [simple future], [simple future]" and "si [future perfect], [simple future]") and it can happen that a speaker/writer fails to express clearly the anteriority of one action relatively to the other even if strictly logically one should be completed before the other. But there is a strong tendency to express it.

It can also happen that both parts are in the future perfect, in sentences of the kind pergratum mihi feceris si istum ad me librum miseris = more or less literally, "You shall have done me a great pleasure if you shall have sent that book to me" (in more natural English, maybe you'd say something like "You'll do me a great pleasure if you send me that book"). It's logical for feceris to be in the same tense as miseris rather than in the simple future, because it's in the very same fact of sending the book that the person will do you a great pleasure, not in some other action that would occur afterwards: so since it's the same action, it necessarily occurs and is completed at the same time as itself; it can't occur after its own completion. And the whole is in the future perfect rather than in the simple future because the point is the result of the completed action rather than the action in itself.

The present tense is occasionally found with a future meaning (whether for the simple future or for the future perfect) in more colloquial styles.

Note: When the apodosis (i.e. the main clause) is an imperative, future conditions are one context where (logically enough) the future imperative is regularly found. E.g. Si quid audieris novi, ad me scribito = "If you hear (literally "shall have heard") anything new, (then) write to me."

2. CONDITIONAL SENTENCES WITH THE SUBJUNCTIVE

2.A. Contrary-to-Fact Statements

When you want to say that if such and such were the case now (either happening right now or generally the case) such and such would be the case now (either happening right now or in general), you use the imperfect subjunctive (in both parts; both in the "If such and such were the case" part and in the "such and such would be the case" part).

Examples:

1) Si adesses, minus maererem = "If you were here, I would be less sad."

2) Nisi tantum strepitum faceretis, iam ego dormirem = "If you guys weren't doing so much noise, I'd already be sleeping."

3) Si saperes, talia non diceres = "If you were in your right mind, you wouldn't say (or "be saying") such things."

4) Nisi aqua in terris esset, ne nos quidem essemus = "If there weren't water on earth, we wouldn't be there either."

If you want to say that if such and such had been the case (in the past), such and such would have been the case (in the past), you use the pluperfect subjunctive.

Examples:

1) Nisi subvenisses, isti me occidissent = "If you hadn't come to my help, they would have killed me."

2) Si pater adfuisset, hoc filius facere non esset ausus = "If the father had been there, the son wouldn't have dared to do this."

3) Si scripsisses ad me, rescripsissem = "If you had written to me, I would have written back."

4) Illum virum si audissemus, non in tantam calamitatem incidissemus = "If we had listened to that man, we wouldn't have fallen into such great misfortune."

It is of course possible to have a mix of the two — of both past contrary-to-fact and present contrary-to-fact; pluperfect subjunctive and imperfect subjunctive — if you want to say that if such and such had been the case in the past, such and such would be the case now; or that if such and such were the case in general, such and such would have been the case in the past.

Examples:

1) Illum virum si audissemus, non in tanta calamitate essemus = "If we had listened to that man, we wouldn't be in such great misfortune."

2) Nisi esses tam stultus, istud non fecisses = "If you weren't so stupid, you wouldn't have done that."

Notes:

- There are some statements in English that have a contrary-to-fact feel to them but yet are generally expressed in Latin with the indicative. This happens especially with verbs that denote possibility or obligation/need, in statements like "I could have done that but I didn't want to" or "You should have said something, but you kept silent". In Latin, you'll usually find the indicative here: "I could have done that" = illud facere potui (same as "I was able to do that"); "You should have said something = aliquid dicere debuisti/aliquid te dicere oportuit (same as "you had to say something"). This is because, while in English such statements feel contrary-to-fact to us because the thing wasn't done in the end, in Latin "could have" and "should have" are expressed by the indicative because the possibility or obligation/need was real even though the thing didn't get done. When this sort of "could have" or "should have" statement isn't accompanied by any "if" or similar clause, the indicative will pretty much always be used. When it is accompanied by an "if" or similar clause (thus making the whole thing a full-fledged conditional sentence), it is possible to find either the subjunctive or the indicative (some more will be said about this in the last section of the post).

- Sometimes, an imperfect subjunctive may translate into English similarly to a past contrary-to-fact rather than a present contrary-to-fact; this happens notably in expression like putares.../ crederes...; "you would have thought..." in a general sense like one/anyone then present — and so you too — would have thought... E.g. Pulcherrime Latine loquebatur, putares Romanum = "He spoke Latin excellently, you'd have thought he was a Roman." While these may translate similarly to pasts contrary-to-fact in English, they are in my opinion some sorts of past potentials rather than properly contrary-to-fact's.

2.B. Potential, or "Future-Less-Vivid", Statements

These are when you want to say that if such and such happened/were to happen (in the future), such and such would happen (in the future). The tenses that can be used here are present and perfect subjunctive, the latter being used when one wants to stress the completed nature of an action or its anteriority to another; though there is some leeway with this. For example, you can say, clearly marking the anteriority of one action relatively to the other: Si thesaurum inveneris, quid facias? = "If you found a treasure (a bit more literally "if you had found", though not in the past, but in the future: if you should find yourself in the situation of having found a treasure — perfect subjunctive in Latin), what would you do?" But this would also be a quite common way of putting things: Si thesaurum invenias, quid facias? = "If you found a treasure (if you should find yourself in the situation of finding a treasure — present subjunctive in Latin), what would you do?"

More examples:

1) Si naufragus in insulam desertam sis eiectus, quid facias? = "If, shipwrecked, you were cast ashore (a bit more literally "had been cast ashore", but in the future: if you should find yourself in the situation of having been cast ashore) on a desert island, what would you do?"

2) Si quis amicorum meorum ita se gerat, in amicitia cum eo manere nolim = "If any of my friends behaved that way (should behave that way in the future), I wouldn't want to stay friends with him."

3) Si quid me roges quod honeste facere possim, faciam = "If you asked me (if you should ask me in the future, if you were to ask me) anything that I could morally do, I would do it."

4) Si quid te fraudarim, ulciscaris = "If I cheated you (if I were to cheat you, or, a bit more literally, if I were to have cheated you, i.e. if I should find myself, in the future, in the situation of having cheated you) in anything, you would take revenge."

How do potential/future-less-vivid conditions differ from indicative future conditions? In the same way as "If you asked me/should ask me/were to ask me anything that I could morally do, I would do it" differs from "If you ask me anything that I can morally do, I'll do it" in English.

How does potential/future-less-vivid differ from present contrary-to-fact? As they are not always clearly differentiated in English, and they both refer to things that are not stated as facts, some students may wonder. The difference is that the present contrary-to-fact refers only to the present and says that if such and such were currently the case, such and such would currently be the case; whereas the potential or future-less-vivid doesn't really say anything about the present but says that if such and such should happen in the future, such and such would happen. Compare sentence 3) above: Si quid me roges quod honeste facere possim, faciam = "If you asked me (if you should ask me in the future, if you were to ask me) anything that I could morally do, I would do it" with the same in the present contrary-to-fact: Si quid me rogares quod honeste facere possem, facerem = "If you were asking me anything that I could morally do, I would do it": the version with the present subjunctive refers to a potential situation that may arise in the future, and it says what I would do then if it happened; whereas the version with the imperfect subjunctive is about what I would be doing now if that situation were occuring now — but it isn't. (A very likely context for that sentence would be that the person was in fact now asking me to do something dishonorable, which I didn't want to do, and I was justifying my denial by saying that if they were asking for something okay, I'd do it, but it wasn't the case).

3. MIXED CONDITIONALS

It sometimes happens that a conditional sentence contains both indicative and subjunctive.

Notably, you can have an indicative past tense in the apodosis (i.e. the main clause) and a pluperfect subjunctive in the protasis (i.e. the si or similar clause). This happens comparatively often when the verb of the main clause is one that denotes possibility or obligation/need (cf. the first note to 2.A.). For example: Rex fieri potuit nisi illo proelio cecidisset = "He could have become king if he hadn't fallen in that battle." But it can also happen with other verbs; e.g. In me irruebat nisi tu eum retinuisses = literally "He was throwing himself on me if you hadn't held him back": the indicative in the main clause emphasizes the imminence or even the reality or near-reality of the action: he was very close to throwing himself on me, and had perhaps even started doing so, when you held him back.

The verb of a si or similar clause in a condition concerning a repeated action in the past is also sometimes found in the subjunctive, while the verb of the main clause stays in the indicative. E.g. Si quis miles consisteret, statim procedere cogebatur = "If any soldier stopped, he was immediately forced to march on." But the indicative in both parts is also regular (cf. 1.A.).

Other sorts of mixed conditionals are occasionally found, like for example a present subjunctive in the si or similar clause with a future indicative in the main clause: e.g. Si fiat, gaudebo, sort of like "If it should happen, I'll be glad", but these are rather rare in classical Latin.

Final note: If you wonder what all these sorts of conditional sentences become in indirect speech, have a look at this thread.
 

Dantius

Homo Sapiens
Staff member
Oh yay you wrote this guide! Thanks for linking to my guide :D

A few interesting facts regarding conditional statements:
"The verb of a si or similar clause in a condition concerning a repeated action in the past is also sometimes found in the subjunctive, while the verb of the main clause stays in the indicative. E.g. Si quis miles consisteret, statim procedere cogebatur = "If any soldier stopped, he was immediately forced to march on." But the indicative in both parts is also regular (cf. 1.A.)." That is in fact the most common construction in later writers such as Livy, in fact he has a whole paragraph explaining how battles work, like "If (=whenever) the triarii were not able to succeed, they retreated, etc." with these subjunctives.
It can also work with other clauses like "As each person came, he addresed him/her" "Ut quisque veniret / veniebat, eum adloquebatur."

Along with the "In me irruebat nisi ..." example, "paene + perfect indicative" is sometimes found like "Dantius paene mortuus est, nisi Marcus eum serva(vi)sset"

It may be interesting to note that "-urus fuit/erat" can be used instead of the pluperfect subjunctive in the apodosis (just like how it's done in indirect speech)

Quid futurum fuit nisi... What would've happened unless...
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
It may be interesting to note that "-urus fuit/erat" can be used instead of the perfect subjunctive in the apodosis (just like how it's done in indirect speech)

Quid futurum fuit nisi... What would've happened unless...
You mean pluperfect subjunctive (quid futurum fuit nisi... = more or less quid factum esset nisi...).
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
"The verb of a si or similar clause in a condition concerning a repeated action in the past is also sometimes found in the subjunctive, while the verb of the main clause stays in the indicative. E.g. Si quis miles consisteret, statim procedere cogebatur = "If any soldier stopped, he was immediately forced to march on." But the indicative in both parts is also regular (cf. 1.A.)." That is in fact the most common construction in later writers such as Livy, in fact he has a whole paragraph explaining how battles work, like "If (=whenever) the triarii were not able to succeed, they retreated, etc." with these subjunctives.
By the way, it's reminiscent of the corresponding Greek construction (in Greek, dependent clauses that denote habitual actions in the past take the optative). It's funny how Latin seems to have gotten closer to Greek with time, in some respects. Or how Greek, though being older, developed things that appeared only later in Latin/Romance, depending on how you look at it. It isn't the first time that I remark this in a post. Since many educated Romans knew Greek (and, later, in early Christian times, there were all those Bible translations from Greek), direct influence may have played a role in some cases, while in others similar developments may have occured independently (as was, I think, probably the case with the development of the definite article).

Ok, I went somewhat off topic, but well.
 

Dantius

Homo Sapiens
Staff member
Interesting! I was wondering what might have caused this change as the use of the subjunctive in these clauses never seemed very natural to me.
 

Dantius

Homo Sapiens
Staff member
"That is, no "would" expressing something potential or contrary-to-fact as in "If this happened, he would be glad" or "If you were here, I would be happy", which would require the subjunctive in Latin. "Would" can also be used to denote a habitual action in the past, with a meaning close to that of "used to", as in "Back in the day, if I received a gift, I would be very excited": this is a different thing and this sort of factual (as opposed to potential or contrary-to-fact) "would" translates into Latin with the imperfect indicative."

And, of course, there's "would" as a future-in-the-past like "was going to" - "Little did he know that that moment would change his life". (this is done with the active periphrastic or future infinitive). Why is "would" such a confusing word in English???
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
Interesting! I was wondering what might have caused this change as the use of the subjunctive in these clauses never seemed very natural to me.
I don't know if it was really due to Greek influence, but it just seems like a possibility.
"That is, no "would" expressing something potential or contrary-to-fact as in "If this happened, he would be glad" or "If you were here, I would be happy", which would require the subjunctive in Latin. "Would" can also be used to denote a habitual action in the past, with a meaning close to that of "used to", as in "Back in the day, if I received a gift, I would be very excited": this is a different thing and this sort of factual (as opposed to potential or contrary-to-fact) "would" translates into Latin with the imperfect indicative."

And, of course, there's "would" as a future-in-the-past like "was going to" - "Little did he know that that moment would change his life". (this is done with the active periphrastic or future infinitive). Why is "would" such a confusing word in English???
Yes — I didn't mention that one because I thought it was less likely to cause confusion.
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
Yes — I didn't mention that one because I thought it was less likely to cause confusion.
Though now I wonder why I thought so. Well, it was probably because I dealt with conditional sentences involving repeated actions in the past, and so that sort of "would" came to mind and I realized its potential for confusion more than that of the other.

I've added a word on it.

Why is "would" such a confusing word in English???
As with everything, ambiguity is generally removed in real-language situations, but still it's funny to realize that in theory, a sentence like "If I fell, I would rise" can mean three things: 1) If I should fall in the future, I would rise; 2) Whenever I fell at some point in the past, I used to rise; 3) If, at a certain point that was future relatively to a certain other point in the past, I fell, I was going to rise.
 
"If I fell, I would rise" can mean three things: 1) If I should fall in the future, I would rise; 2) Whenever I fell at some point in the past, I used to rise; 3) If, at a certain point that was future relatively to a certain other point in the past, I fell, I was going to rise.
Such a ſtatement would ordinarily carry the 2nd meaning.
Preſent verb forms would be more typical for future poſſibilities:
'If I fall, I ſhall riſe.'
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
I would have thought that, in the absence of context, it was more likely to be understood as 1)...
 

Dantius

Homo Sapiens
Staff member
Pacifica dixit:
Note: When the apodosis (i.e. the main clause) is an imperative, future conditions are one context where (logically enough) the future imperative is regularly found. E.g. Si quid audieris novi, ad me scribito = "If you hear (literally "shall have heard") anything new, (then) write to me."
Here's an example where the future imperative is not employed. I wonder why:
'his condicionibus' inquit 'placeatne pax triduum ad consultandum dabitur. si placuerit, mecum indutias facite, Romam ad senatum mittite legatos.'
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
I don't know why. There just tends to be some leeway with these sorts of things.
 
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