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Michigan TIPS, Issue #006 The Unreal Past
September 25, 2007

The Unreal Past

Something that can give students a bit of a problem, grammatically, is what is known as, the unreal past.

The unreal past is simply a past tense being used to refer to a present or future time. If youíre scratching your head saying, huh,? donít worry, as the following is designed to make it all quite clear.

Those items you need to pay special attention to are the following:

As if
If only
Would rather
Had better
Set phrases Ė Itís high/about time

Below are short descriptions with examples. Pay attention to the examples as they should help clarify any difficulties in this often tested item.


The Unreal Past

The past tense form of the verb referring to the present / future time.

I wish we had more time. (but we donít)
He talks to me as if he was / were the king. (but he isnít)
If only I could drive. (but I canít)
Iíd rather you drove not me.
If I found it, I would keep it. [2nd type conditional]
Itís high / about time he got a job. [NOT: Ö he gets Ö]

** NOTE: Itís time for us to go. -- OR -- Itís time we went. [NOT: Itís time we go.]

Itís a great idea, but suppose / supposing your father refused / were to refuse?

When the past perfect is used then the time referred to is in the past and not the present or future.

I wish we had taken your advice. (but we didnít)
She looked as if / as though she hadnít combed her hair in days.
If only you had accepted the offer. (but you didnít)
Iíd rather you had called me sooner. (but you didnít)
If I had known that, Iíd have contacted him. [3rd conditionals]
Suppose they had actually won, what would have happened? (they didnít win)

** NOTE: Wishes with same or different subjects

I wish I lived downtown. (but I donít liveÖ)
I wish I was going on vacation. (but Iím not goingÖ)

I wish + a different subject + would is used to show a desire for a future change or a request showing dissatisfaction.

I wish it would stop snowing.
I wish you would be more polite.

Would rather / Would sooner

Present / future time

Iíd rather eat now. [same subject, present infinitive]
Iíd rather not eat now

ALSO: Iíd rather go to college than get a job.

Iíd rather we ate now. [different subjects, simple past]
Iíd rather we didnít eat now.

Past time

Iíd rather have stayed yesterday. [same subject, perfect infinitive]
Iíd rather not have stayed yesterday.

Iíd rather she had left yesterday. [different subjects, past perfect]
Iíd rather she hadnít left yesterday.

Had better

Present / future time

Youíd better apologize to her. [NOT: Ö to apologizeÖ]
Weíd better not say anything to Dad.

Past time

It would have been better if we hadnít said anything to Dad.

** NOTE: The phrases would rather and had better can be
followed by progressive infinitives.

Iíd rather be sailing today.
Heíd better not be playing when we get there!

Wish, Hope

I wish + someone + noun
I hope + subject + verb

I wish you well / happy holidays.
I hope you enjoy your vacation.

**NOTE: Exceptions

I wish to see the manager. (want)
I hope to see you soon. (would like, expect, desire)


Well that's a brief review of the unreal past and some regularly tested items. Be sure you understand and recognize the above as you are certain to see it on the Michigan exam.

I'll be sending you some more grammar items to review in the next Michigan TIPS.

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Good learning - till next time!



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