Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Geek's Corner (6) : Dinosaur Sentences

Tuesday is my favorite day here in Paris because - you already know - it's the day of the afternoon grammar workshop. Today was particularly enjoyable, because the only other student was Fabian, who shares my enthusiasm for grammar, and the teacher, Bastien, was great.

Given half a chance I'd bore you all for days with a blow-by-blow of today's 3-hour workshop. But I realise not everyone finds grammar as fascinating as I do, so I will focus on one highlight. One of the topics we covered today was use of the conditional. This is generally considered to be one of the more difficult aspects of many languages, particularly when one is referring to the past conditional. I've never found it to be more than moderately difficult, as the sentence structure tends to follow the relevant rule fairly closely, so things are actually fairly regular, once you get the hang of it.

What the hell am I talking about? The kind of sentence I mentally label a "dinosaur sentence". Consider the famous picture above, by Gary Larson, the caption for which is "The real reason dinosaurs became extinct". This suggests the following sentence

If the dinosaurs hadn't smoked so much, then they would not have become extinct

whose defining characteristic is that it expresses an impossible condition in the past, with the associated consequence. (is this geeky enough for you?)

Once you get this particular model sentence down, then you have mastered the use of the past conditional. It's as simple as that.

Si los dinosaurios no hubieran fumado tanto, no se habrian extinguido.

Si les dinosaures n'avaient pas fumé autant, ils n'auraient pas disparu.

Wenn die Dinosaurier nicht so viel geraucht hätten, wären sie nicht ausgestorben.

Of course, one is entirely at liberty to substitute a different condition, depending on one's views about the true cause of dinosaur extinction. For instance

If the dinosaurs hadn't all gone to the beach in Mexico for spring break, they might have escaped the meteor impact and not gone extinct

etc., etc., etc.


  1. Sounds like a past contrafactual to me. In English you have to use the subjunctive ("If you weren't so lazy...") or pluperfect ("If I had left a note..."). Curiously, Ancient Greek, which has both subjunctives and pluperfects, gets by with the indicative for such sentences.

  2. As I've noted before, such posts remind me of the words of the Nashville plumber who belched loudly in my face when I opened my front door to his loud banging, "I guess I orn't to ate that baloney sandwich at lunch."

  3. There is a new quasi-English form which I call the "football conditional", as in:
    "If number 86 doesn't throw that block, then the quarterback gets sacked for a loss." Initially only used by football commentators, this is creeping into common usage.