Clinton conditional conundrum

This is a short post that sparked my curiosity about conditionals. Take it as you want.

Recently a story has emerged about Hilary Clinton. The popular quote is this:

And if we were going to push for an election, then we should have made sure that we did something to determine who was going to win.


A more extended quote is this:

First, I don’t think we should have pushed for an election in the Palestinian territories. I think that was a big mistake. If we were going to push for an election, we should have made sure we did something to determine who was going to win instead of signing off on an electoral system that advantaged Hamas.


According to the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, CGEL (Huddleston & Pullum, 2002) there are two kinds of conditionals – open and remote. Open refers to something that may or may not be the case, remote refers to something being unlikely or remote.

Remote conditionals must have a modal auxiliary in the main clause (e.g. should) and a modal past form were in the if part.

For the first Clinton quote we have these two features hence this is a remote conditional.

If we look at the fuller quote we can argue that Clinton wanted to emphasize to this particular audience that the Bush administration at that time made a mistake. She uses the conditional to highlight this by imagining an alternative world where she was involved in making the decision. In this world she would have done something more than “signing off on an electoral system that advantaged Hamas” and “did something to determine who was going to win”.

Now as to whether this means she would have rigged the election is up for anyone to speculate and whether that applies to election rigging in the US is similarly up for grabs.

I’d be very interested to get your opinion, thanks for reading.


Huddleston, R., & Pullum, G. K. (2002). The Cambridge grammar of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

9 thoughts on “Clinton conditional conundrum

  1. In the full quote she certainly disagrees with the decision to get involved in the Palestinian election process. However she does seamlessly go on to consider “the best” of course of action in this hypothetical scenario. And of course, we can but only speculate what she is capable of influencing in Palestinian or indeed American elections.

    I wonder what difference this change makes:

    ‘If we were going to push for an election, we should have made sure we did something to determine who would win’

    Would she have made the chances of her meddling in foreign elections even more remote by saying would rather than going to? Or maybe she just likes using rhetorical parallelism.

    1. Hi Jamie, yes I think another past form can make it more remote. It also makes it more unsure I think which a politician would have to consider also.

  2. Hi Mura,

    Sorry, I´m missing something. What’s the question / problem here? Both the shorter and fuller quote have the same form, don’t they? Both talk about something that didn’t happen and both say what should have happened, no? What one makes of her opinion that the US should have made sure that the election result was the one they wanted is, as you say, up for grabs.

    1. hi Geoff
      I should have explained a bit more in my post my perception of what I saw on Twitter when this news appeared; people seemed to be focusing on the conditional part and not so much on the previous part about the mistake; hence just focusing on the conditional leaves the comments by Clinton ambiguous the fuller quote is less so

  3. are we focusing on the (usually undetected) ambiguity in a truncated conditional where we are unclear whether the backshifted verb form plots the action in terms of time, or in terms of how hypothetical it is, or both…

    when we should be focusing on the ambiguity of the word “determine” and whether she was talking about causing an outcome of an election or premeditating/ascertaining the likely outcome of an election?

    not sure if I’ve missed the point here, similar to previous commenter?

    1. hi
      yes good point about meaning of determine if just looking at the first quote; as i mentioned it was the previous idea (the mistake) which is being emphasized by the conditional which the people tweeting about it confused me!

      i think we often see things like : he won’t do it. if he was to he would have already. i.e. using a conditional to justify a future prediction;

      this use – it was a mistake. if i was going to do it i would have done something different i.e. using a conditional to justify a past evaluation seems less common?

      a more common formulation: it was a mistake, i would have done it differently. so maybe another interesting question is why did Clinton use the if part here?

  4. Thanks for making me aware of this post. I’d like to first say that conditionals are very funky and can take a lot more forms than we usually teach, especially mixed forms. These really do play with meaning.

    “And if we were going to push for an election, then we should have made sure that we did something to determine who was going to win.”

    A simpler example can help with meaning:
    “If you were going to be late, you should have called.”

    “If you were going to be late” – open past possibility, suggesting being late may or
    may not have happened but was possible

    “you should have called” – condition related to that possibility.

Penny for your thoughts

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