Topol as Tevye

Tevye’s Guide to English Language Conditionals

My apologies for not blogging in a while. There has been a lot of work, I recently downloaded Skyrim, and the fact that we have a two-month-old boy might have something to do with it. So here’s me ‘getting back on the horse’.

“Who is this Tevye?” you may ask.

Topol as Tevye
This fella right here

Tevye is a pious peasant/milkman in Tsarist Russia with an active imagination, famously (and magnificently) portrayed on the big screen by Chaim Topol in 1971’s Fiddler On The Roof. We’ll come back to him in a second.

One of the things my higher-level students always want me to review is conditionals. So I spend a lot of time trying to come up with different examples of all the different conditionals, if only so that I don’t have to keep hearing the same ones over and over. Enter Tevye.

In the first half hour of the movie, the character Tevye manages to utter about 30 conditional sentences (guesstimate), thanks largely to the famous song “If I Were A Rich Man”. He even manages to use three of the four conditional forms in that time too.

So I’ve started using him to teach my students conditionals, and I thought I’d share. So here you are: the four conditionals with examples from Tevye the milk man.

The Zero Conditional:
The most basic. We form this one by stating a condition using the words ‘if/when/unless/until’ with a verb in the present tense, then stating a result in the simple present or imperative (command) forms.

It’s used to state things that are (almost) always true, including scientific fact. The result follows pretty directly as a consequence of the condition, and we would be very surprised if it did not.

Regular example: If you heat ice, it melts.

Tevye says:  As the good book says, if you spit in the air, it lands in your face.

The First Conditional:
The first conditional is very similar in construction to the zero conditional (slightly more permissive in the consequence construction) and only a little less similar in meaning. While zero is used for general truths and therefore has no concept of past, present or future, the first is used to speak about realistic possibilities in the present or future, i.e. not things that necessarily will happen, but things that believably could.

Also, the form becomes ‘If + present tense, future tense’.

Regular example: If it rains tomorrow, I will take my umbrella.

Tevye says: [to his wife] I won’t be late, I won’t be late, IF YOU EVER STOP TALKING, I WON’T BE LATE!

The Second Conditional:
While the first conditional is for things that are realistically possible/probable, the second conditional is for things that are impossible/improbable.

Also, the structure changes to ‘If + past tense, should/could/would/may/might + simple past tense’. Even though the conditional refers to the present or future, we use past tense language.
[For those playing the home game, should, could, and would are themselves the past tense forms of shall, can, and will – modal verbs which show probability. May and might don’t have explicitly past tense forms.]

Regular example: If I won the lottery, I would buy a car.

Tevye says: If I were a rich man, 

  • I’d biddy biddy bum.
  • I wouldn’t have to work hard.
  • I’d build a big tall house.
  • I’d see my wife looking like a rich man’s wife.
  • The most important men … would come to fawn on me.
  • They’d ask me to advise them.
  • It won’t make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong.
  • etc… 

The Third Conditional:
Tevye doesn’t use the third, and last, conditional in the part of the movie we’re discussing, and while he may later in the movie, I’d have to rewatch it to check.

Third conditional is for describing how things could have gone differently in the past. The condition must be put into the past perfect, which is simply the past tense of the verb ‘to have’ (I had, you had, etc) paired up with the past participle of the verb (heard, for example). The result uses the same modal verbs as second conditional, but with present perfect instead of simple past.

Regular example: If I had not heard the alarm clock this morning, I would have been late to work. If you hadn’t read this article just now, you’d have had twenty minutes to do something more interesting. 

To recap, zero is for in general, and is formed ‘if present, present/imperative’. First is for realistic present/future, and is expressed ‘if present, future’. Second is for unreal present/future, and is ‘if past, modal + simple past’. Third is for unreal past, and uses the ‘if past perfect, modal + present perfect’ form.

Et voilà. You are all now experts on the conditional. Or maybe not. As always, your thoughts, questions, criticisms, critiques, suggestions, warnings, pontifications, musings, rants, raves, hints, intimations, accusations, exclamations, and observations are more than welcome in the comments section.


3 thoughts on “Tevye’s Guide to English Language Conditionals

  1. I get it. I love your use of Tevye as the shining example of language conditionals. English must be confusing to your students, as it is often confusing to me and it is my first language. 😉

    My favorite conditional begins with “If the shoe fits…” and ends with either: “don’t put it in your mouth” or “buy it in every color”. Or are those both considered cliches?

    Good to see you ‘back on the horse’!

  2. Good one, Don. The English conditionals are difficult for Filipinos, too. The biggest mistake is using the present tense for your #2. The same mistake comes with sentences using “I wish…” where they’ll say, “I wish I can cook like that.” I admit I see the logic of their mistake, since they desire to cook that way, now, today. But the conditional/hypothetical takes a modal. All this shows the inadequacy of using terms like “present” and “past” since those concepts only cover a small number of the situations and senses those forms cover.

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