Rewriting the past

Discussing what might have been ...

Thinking about the way things might have been if ... can be an entertaining game of speculation, but it is also an important aspect of judging the past. It is intriguing to think about what would have happened if Columbus' ship had sunk, or if Lee Harvey Oswald had missed President Kennedy ... but it is actually useful to ask what would have happened if climate change had been noticed thirty years earlier, or if more regulation had been applied to subprime mortgages before the crash of 2008.

So exercising the rather complicated structures of the Third Conditional benefits not only students' command of lesser-known bits of the language, but also their ability to think clearly about extended chains of cause and effect.

Design principles

In devising situations to fuel activities that practise the Third Conditional, we need to keep three ground rules in mind:-

1. The Third Conditional involves speculating about what might have been - and the problem with that is that you have to know something about what actually was. You can't play at changing the past without having some idea of the past to change.

So, finding workable activities means that we either have to deal with knowledge that the students already have, or provide them with knowledge with which they can play around.

2. A consequence of this is that (a) basing the activity on what students know will make it more possible to run an oral discussion, whereas (b)  if the knowledge has to be supplied, it will probably be easier and more profitable to think of a reading-to-writing exercise.

3. A further problem, which gives us a basic Rule for chosing the topic for this activity is that the 'condition' - the idea about the past that we are going to play around with - has to be firmly located in the past. Otherwise, we are going to have one half of the structure in the Third, and the other in the Second, as in ...

"If I hadn't been born, I wouldn't be here now!"

This means that we have to formulate the initial question very carefully - we have to make sure that both clauses refer to the past.


qBank resources

Conditionals #3 ... handling past possibilities and probabilities


Using student knowledge

The one thing all students can be guaranteed to know about is their own lives and circumstances.

"If your parents had decided to move to ...(Australia / Chile / Mongolia, etc) - how would your life have changed?"

"If you had been born ten years earlier, how do you think your life would have changed?"

"If your parents had had five more children, would they have treated you differently?"

"If you had been born a (girl / boy), how would your childhood have been different?"

[Careful! Notice the difference if we phrase the question like this: "If you had been born a (girl / boy), would your life be different ?" - the answers here are going to be in the Second: "Yes - I wouldn't like football (now) ..." ]

Beyond their own lives and times, we can assume that students will know something of general knowledge - and that if we phrase the question careful, we can fish for knowledge that has caught their imagination. For instance, the general approach :-

"If you hadn't been born when you were born, but had been born in some other period of history, when would you like to have been born ?"

"If you had been born then, what would your life have been like?" (leading to detailed exploration)

"If there had been more queens than kings in history, how would history have been different?"    *(that one is likely to lead to 'mixed tenses' - such as   "Women are not as aggressive as men so there would have been fewer wars". Which is probably fine, because the concepts involved require such combination of tenses.)

Or we could make the stimulus more precise:-

"If you had been born in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus Christ, what would you have thought of him?"

"If you had had the chance of meeting Christ, what would you have asked him?"

The essential of running a discussion like this in order to practise the structure is that one has to insist ruthlessly on the students using the structure in every answer, and getting it right.

Providing the knowledge base 

The internet is an obvious source of necessary information here. Here are some useful sites.

General Alternative History  ... althistory.  appears to be the place to go for alternative history buffs. It has a vast selection of ATLs (Alternative Time Lines), based on varying PODs (Points Of Divergence) ... yes, AltHist has its own jargon!

The site has a Wikipedia-type structure with headings, articles, maps, 'fact'-tables, and is pretty easy to navigate around. It is certainly a rich source, with thousands of articles describing alternative histories.

The problems, from our practical point of view, are that

  • it seems to be the convention that the 'histories' should be written in the Dramatic Present ("In 1813, Napoleon emerges from winter quarters at Borodino, swiftly defeats ...")
  • some of the writing is less than exemplary from a language teacher's point of view (tenses wandering erratically from present to past, misusage of vocabulary)
  • the better articles presuppose quite a detailed knowledge of real history in order to appreciate the divergences

Nine possible scenarios  ... What if? ... An alternative history of the world is an interesting article from The Independent newspaper, which concisely summarises nine possible turning points in history - from the dinosaurs not being wiped out by an asteroid, to "Medieval Muslims use aircraft to conquer Europe" ...

The strength of this site is that it is well written (it does actually use conditionals properly!), and succinctly summarises intriguing possibilities. (One of which I use as part of the handout.)

Detailed recent history ... If Gore had won  is an imaginative Newsweek essay of alternative US history. Interestingly, it's told as an "oral history of the last decade", in that it tells the 'history' partly through summary narration, and partly through quotations (which are a curious mixture of apparently invented and real, referenced quotations from real people - it's not totally clear what is real and what is not!)

This page might be a little nearer to students' real-life experience - presumably, the more alert will be well aware of the Bush years, and should have some idea of how close the 1999 Presidential election really was. In turn, this might make possible the question "How would the world have changed if Obama had not been elected?" ... which surely should be a speculative question that students ought to be able to take on board.

The downside is that it is written as 'real history', in that cursed journalistic Dramatic Present tense. Might be good for research purposes, though?

A specific lesson 

In discussing how to provide the knowledge base, I have been suggesting possibilities and resources that you could use to adapt to your students' interests and needs. Here is a concrete proposal for a lesson.

There is a handout about An Eastern-dominated history? available - click here

Easternised World? 

This alternative history springs from the supposition that eastern nations, and particularly China, had the potential to expand outwards and colonise in the same way as western countries did from the Fifteenth Century onwards. They didn't, so it was the westerners who came to dominate global politics and economics and scientific development for hundreds of years. Until now ...?

Step 1 ... give out the handout, and start discussions on the propositions it puts forward. This might be sufficient for the basic purpose of exercising the Third Conditional, but if the project catches their interest, make it larger scale, as follows ...

Step 2 ... depending on the level of knowledge in the group, organise rapid or more detailed research programmes. This will be best done in small groups, with aspects of the subjects to be researched divided between the groups. The Panel of Experts technique will be helpful here (see Interactive oral activities )

The shortest and simplest way of getting materials would be to refer them all to the AltHistory feature Easternised World  - which is an exhaustively developed fictional history. AND ...

... refer them to real history!  For example, Eastern World and Timeline of Chinese History (particularly Ming Dynasty, 1368 onwards), both in Wikipedia.

Step 3 ... after  a couple of homeworks devoted to developing ideas, run a whole-class discussion, focused on the key question - "What would have happened to world history if China had decided to expand?"


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