Monday, April 12, 2010

The Phantom “But”: A Strategy for Sorting out the Time References of Mixed Conditionals

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

I was almost feverishly exited when I learned that my high school English class had progressed to the point where we were just a few textbook pages away from the unit on the Third Conditional, the most difficult conditional of all! You may be thinking something like “So, how weird is she?”, but I’m telling you, it brought a “hurray” to my mind!

At the time, I was an energetic college prep student who had just resolved to pursue English language studies after graduation, and one who relished the challenges presented by such difficult grammar structures. My enthusiasm may seem somewhat abstract, but it did have a concrete purpose. The better my English was, the better my chances of passing an entrance exam and winning a place in a university English program would be. I felt that it was within my grasp to become a university student, and I was focused on the struggle to realize that dream. The competition on the exam day that I was targeting, however, would be intimidating, to say the least. Only the top 10% of the hundreds of examinees who would be present at that university’s English exam would be admitted.

So, the long-awaited practice of the Third Conditional came at last. As I had suspected, it was “wonderfully tough.”

When we were completing that unit, I learned, to my joy, that there was more, that there were so-called “mixed conditionals.” However, I also learned at that moment, to my dismay, that those conditionals were not part of the school curriculum. If I wanted to be taught about mixed conditionals, I would have to teach myself.

A Conditional Pickle

I found a book that discussed them, and I opened it. Soon enough, it became clear that the structures of the mixed conditionals were a composite, or mixture, of structures already familiar to me. The patterns of the clauses seemed logical. Still, a proper recognition of time references eluded me for quite a while. Sorting out the differences between the present condition-past result and the past condition-present result was contorting my mind and zapping my gumption.

“But” to the Rescue

Somewhere in the middle of that self-study storm, an idea came to me. It was an idea about what could follow mixed conditional structures, and it led me to devising a kind of tool for checking my answers. I would write out a sentence based on a mixed conditional structure, and then in my head add a phantom “but” and finish the thought. This little strategy allowed me to register those big, nasty time references.


→ If Robin weren’t shy about approaching strangers, she would have asked Mark out on a date.
BUT she IS shy about approaching strangers, so she DIDN’T ask Mark out on a date. (present condition) (past result)

→ If Sophie had saved the recipe for the chocolate babka, she would not have to look for it now.
BUT she DIDN’T save the recipe, so she HAS to look for it now. (past condition) (present result)

In the end, I passed an entrance exam, became a student, passed an exit exam, and became a teacher. Since then, I have used this easy method many times to teach mixed conditionals to my students. Actually, I have found that students can sometimes sort out the tense-time references more quickly if they also employ other phantom words such as “now” and “then.”


→ … BUT she IS shy about approaching strangers (NOW), so she DIDN’T ask Mark out on a date (THEN).

→ … BUT she DIDN’T save the recipe (THEN), so she HAS to look for it (NOW).

Do you teach mixed conditionals to any of your students? If so, at what level or point do you introduce them?

Leave a comment on this post