Past tense: I went to the store and stole a cookie.
Present tense: I am at the store, stealing a cookie.
Future tense: I am going to go to the store to steal a cookie.
Contrary-to-fact tense: If I were a thief, I would steal a cookie.
Sometimes that last one (contrary-to-fact) is called the conditional tense, but regardless of what you call it, most people have never heard of it. And the vast majority of them get it wrong. This includes some successful writers, including one whom I shall refrain from naming, who wrote a blog post blasting a copy editor for changing “she treated me as though I was a four year-old” to “she treated me as though I were a four year-old.” She went on at length about how she was a professional writer and knew darn well how to used complex structures and verb tenses, blasting the copy editor for changing her work. And she was wrong.
Sorry. I don’t know who the copy editor is/was; I just feel compelled to defend… well, the one who was using the correct tense. If it’s truly a matter of style, the writer should have the final word. If it’s not, then the one with the correct information should have the final word, and in this case it was the copy editor.
Here’s how this tense works (a obscure as it may seem, it actually comes up more often then you might expect):
If you are using a sentence construction that uses the term “as if” or “as though” or something similar to expresses a concept that is not, in actuality, true, then you are using the conditional or contrary-to-fact tense. The reason I prefer to call it the contrary-to-fact tense is that the name explains how it works.
“If she were a dinosaur…” “He treated his son as though he were a small tuna fish…” The woman is not really a dinosaur, nor is the man’s son really a tuna fish. The statement is contrary to the facts of the case. In the event you are writing this kind of sentence, you always, always, always, use “were” instead of “was.” “If I were a chicken…” “If you were a chicken…” “If she was a chicken…” Nope, that last one should read, “If she were a chicken…” (Testing to see if you were paying attention.) “If we were chickens…”
If it’s past contrary-to-fact (or past conditional), you always say “had been,” but most people don’t get that one wrong nearly as often. “If I had been hoping people would stop making this mistake, I was setting myself up for disappointment.”
That’s the ‘odd’ part. Here’s the ‘end’:
I don’t see it nearly as often as the above-mentioned problem, but I see it often enough that thought I’d mention it anyway. The American convention for punctuation as it relates to quotation marks is that if the quote marks fall at the end of the sentence, the punctuation goes inside of the quote marks (yes, even if the punctuation isn’t part of the original quote). The British convention of leaving the punctuation outside the quote marks often seems to me to make more sense, but we’re not in Great Britain, are we?
So if you see Many of these cookies are “stolen.” you’re reading someting published in America. If you see Many of these cookies are “stolen”. you’re reading something published in G.B (or simply incorrectly written, if you’re on the left side of the Atlantic Ocean).
I mention this because lately I’ve seen a lot of sentences that are written thus: I was eating the “tuna”, and got “sick”. All I’m asking is that you tuck that poor little comma and lonely old period inside of the quotation marks. It’s just the way we do things here in America. Besides, if you don’t, I’ll have to. And when I do, please refrain from writing ranting blog-posts about how stupid I am. If that were to happen, it would make me “irritable.”
But since that last sentence was written as contrary-to-fact, I know we don’t have anything to worry about…