The unreal imaginary tenses (conditionals)

In English there are clear structures based on verb forms to indicate unreal situations. When a speaker says “If I had got the money I would have bought 2 houses in the financial crisis” the listener recognizes the unreal past by the verb forms ‘had got’ and ‘would have bought’. In another example “In a perfect world I wouldn't use credit cards” the verb form "wouldn't use" signal a unreal situation in the present.

In Vietnamese the past tense is created by sometimes adding ‘đã’ (already) in front of the verb, but most of the times verbs stay the same as in the present. Listeners rely on the context and time reference to infer that it is about the past.

For imaginary tenses the word ‘tưởng’ (imagine) or ‘đáng lẽ’ / ‘lẽ ra’ (would have) or other similar words can be used. However, people don’t usually use these words in everyday language. Imaginary situations can be mistaken for real when someone doesn’t want to talk about what being asked by using fewer words or incomplete sentences, especially with regional speakers. As unreal situations are expressed differently by different speakers and there are no uniformed structure to say it, Vietnamese listeners rely on time reference, context, cohesion and coherence to detect whether it is unreal.

In criminal law the difference between guilt and innocence is decided by judging whether the defendant ‘did it’ or ‘didn’t do it’. Part of the evidence usually comes from what they said in the police interview. In this example the interviewee's word 'I would have had to do' could easily been interpreted as 'I had to do'.

A Vietnamese man X visited UK for the first time and he didn’t speak English. He met another man who offered him a casual job going to an industrial unit to help his workers package some products. The man gave X the key to the unit and asked him to go there first and wait for his workers to arrive. X went to the unit and waited for some time. No one turned up so X left and went home. X was arrested on the way home because the police was informed that the product in the unit was illegal.

In the interview with police via a Vietnamese interpreter, X said to the officers “Nó bảo tôi vào để giúp người của nó đóng gói thuốc bệnh. Tôi vào và ở trong đó ít lâu. Tôi phải đóng gói thuốc nhưng rồi họ không tới nên tôi đi ra”. The interpreter translated this as “I was told to come in to help his workers package medicinal products. I went in and remained there for some time. I had to package the medicine but then they didn’t come so I left”. Considering the context that he was expected to help the workers, what he meant was probably “I would have had to package the medicine but because they didn’t come I left.”

If X used the word ‘tưởng’ (imagine) his answers would be translated as “I imagined that I would have to package the medicine but because they didn’t come I left”. In reality, ‘tưởng’ (imagine) or other similar words are optional. Some people use them, others don’t.