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I'm trying to find a reliable pattern for counterfactual conditional sentences like 'if X had (not) done sth, then Y would (not) have done sth. else'. In English and other European languages, conditional sentences can be classified into three or four different patterns depending on the verb tenses used, but Chinese textbooks don't classify these semantic differences into separate patterns at all, basically putting it all down to context within the common 如果...就... pattern.

What is the best pattern for conditions of this hypothetical, impossible type involving an alternative sequence of events in the past?

To make the question more concrete, I will provide two examples.

Suppose I was going to take a plane a few days ago, but I overslept and missed it. Later I learned that the plane had a fatal accident. In English, I would say:

  1. If I had taken that plane, I would have died.

As a second example, suppose Russia's president Putin is not invited to a summit of world leaders because of the aggression against Ukraine. In English, we could say:

  1. If Russia had not invaded Ukraine, Putin would have been invited to this summit.

I would appreciate it if somebody could give me good idiomatic translations for these two sentences. My attempts would involve using 如果..., maybe with a matching 的話, in the first part, and 就會, in the second part, but I suspect we may need to throw in some words like 當初, 早 or 了 for good measure.

3 Answers 3

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Unlike English, Chinese uses tense indicators to identify the time of occurrence of an event:

  1. If I had taken that plane, I would have died. - 如果我搭了那班飛機(the assumed event), 我就已經死了(the expected result). Here, 已經 - already (experienced), acts as the past tense indicator.

  2. If Russia had not invaded Ukraine, Putin would have been invited to this summit. - 如果蘇俄沒有入侵烏克蘭在前, 普丁就應該會被邀請出席這此的高峯會議. Here, both 在前(before, prior to, a latter event) and 應該會被(probably would have been) act as the past and future tense indicators respectively - "shall the assumed event had not occurred, something probably would have occurred".

Note: 如果當初蘇俄沒有入侵烏克蘭, ... Here, 當初 also acts as the past tense indicator, since 蘇俄入侵烏克蘭 is a fact occurred in the past.

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  • Great answer. I especially appreciate you've provided translations for the examples. For the first one, would the following version be ok: 如果我當初搭了那班飛機, 我就死了? I'm wondering if using 當初 (or 那時, 那天, etc.) in the first part would remove the need for an explicit 已經 in the second part. Jan 10, 2023 at 12:19
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    Yes, your proposed sentence is fine, but I personally still prefer to finish with 我就已經死了 or 我就(已經)死了 to emphasize/exaggerate the near-death experience.
    – r13
    Jan 10, 2023 at 13:30
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mostly,

如果(optional subject)(有xxx/没xxx/xxx了(optional object)),(optional subject)就(不)(能/会/...)xxx(optional 了)

当初 may be added after the subject. 早 may be added after 没 or at the same place as 当初. they're both optional, only better if you want to express the "early, in prior", somehow like the difference between the perfect tense and the past perfect tense.

sometimes 就 is optional as well, although, with 就 the sentence sounds more completed.

plainly with 就 means you're certain. if you want to say "then it might/would (not) blabla", it's the case of 也许/应该, though it's also valid to say 也许就/应该就, just sounding a little bit verbose.

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  • This is also a very good answer. If I apply your patterns to my first example, I get 如果我搭了那班飞机 or 如果我早/当初搭了那班飞机 for the first part and 我就死了 or 我就会死了 or 我会死了 or 我应该就会死(了) for the second part. Would all these combinations be ok? Jan 10, 2023 at 12:34
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    in this 飞机 case there are more details, where 早 sounds bad but 当初 sounds good. it's because 早 is for some preparation work that (mostly) earlier is better, but 坐那班飞机 is not a good preparation (for my death, oh). 会 sounds verbose here, it's perfect to just say 我(应该)就死了. Jan 26, 2023 at 6:51
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The past tense is the difficult part actually, since chinese does not have tense.

However I think the standard if.... then structures would cover it just fine.

This is kind of a weird structure in chinese to learn, even though its so common. There are many different vocabulary to be used the same way, but lets go with "如果....的話,就....。" as a really standard one.

What I wrote above is an official layout grammatically to say "If (what ever in whatever tense) then (whatever in whatever tense)." The reason I said its weird is all three of the grammar terms used are optional.

You can combine them in any way, or use just one of them... or leave them all out completely and the if/then is simply implied.

I recommend looking at the allset learning chinese grammar wiki for more info, on this and other related grammar points at the link below. They are great with lots of example sentences which can help.

https://resources.allsetlearning.com/chinese/grammar/Expressing_%22if%22_with_%22ruguo..._dehua%22

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  • This is a good point but the problem with "the standard if... then... structures cover it just fine" is that there is a huge difference between saying "if I go to China, I will learn Chinese" and "if I had gone to China, I would have learned Chinese", so we clearly need some additional stuff to get the second meaning, as suggested in the other answers. I'd seen the Chinese Grammar Wiki article of your link before, but I hadn't noticed that it contains an example of a counterfactual: 如果有人帮他的话,他就不会出事了. I guess the 不会...了 in the second part is what gives the right counterfactual meaning. Jan 10, 2023 at 12:12

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