Unconditionally Nina Simone: a walk through conditional tenses with the high priestess of soul.

Unquestionably one of the greatest singers of all time. If you love great music, you love Nina Simone. Well, that’s my humble opinion and probably yours too. That second sentence is a zero conditional and that means that there is absolutely nothing questionable or conditional about the statement. ‘If’, here, is the same as ‘when’. If I listen to her records, this strange thing that we call life seems to make more sense. Present simple + present simple. What could be more simple than that?

Well, life for a start. If we could solve all our problems with a song, life would be so much easier. We can’t. However, music makes it better. But hey, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. That was a second conditional and first we need to talk about, yeah you guessed it, the first.

Take a present simple verb, auxiliary ‘will’ plus an infinitive and you’ve got yourself a first conditional. A way to talk about a possible or probable situation and its result. If you go to Discos Alta Fidelidad (aka the best record shop I’ve ever known) here in Oviedo, you’ll find all the Nina Simone records you need. And if you look around the shop, you might find some other great record you’ve been looking for forever. In that sentence, by substituting ‘will’ with ‘might’ we’ve changed a definite result for a possible one. That’s proof that conditionals are not as formulaic as you might think. But if I revealed it all here, no one would come to my classes, would they?

Which brings us to second conditionals. But first, it’s about time we listened to a song by Nina:

And she made it all quite clear for you, yeah? A past tense verb for that improbable or imaginary situation + would + an infinitive. Another example: If I could change my name, I would do so.

Nina was born by the name Eunice Kathleen Waymon, but chose to change it because she chose to perform ‘the devil’s music’ and consequently needed to distance herself from her family and their religious beliefs. Interestingly, she chose the name Nina because she had a Spanish-speaking boyfriend who used to call her ‘niña’.

So now here come the third conditionals. This is where it can seem a bit complicated. The further down the line you go, the more complicated things become. No surprise there, whether we’re talking about grammar or life itself.

Fans of English grammar will know that we use past tenses to refer to an imaginary present/future and the past perfect form to refer to an imaginary past. Fans of keeping things simple will recognise that it’s a hell of a lot more complicated in Spanish.

If + had + past participle. would + have + past participle

There’s an awful lot of difficulty and tragedy in the later part of Nina’s life, much of it brought on by the society and people around her. And sadly, nothing can be done to change that. It’s a third conditional. If she hadn’t had the bravery to write and record civil rights protest song ‘Mississippi Goddam’, her career would have been more prosperous. If it hadn’t been for the mental illness she suffered…or the man she married…things might have been very different for her.

The third conditional also invites us to ask that great ‘What if..’ question. Speculation on how things would’ve been if other stuff hadn’t happened. In the world of music, we ask ourselves: what if Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain hadn’t died so young? What more might they have given us?

Jeff Buckley’s record ‘Grace’ is also testament to the same. His untimely death deprived us of who knows how many other great recordings. Here’s his version of a song made famous by Nina Simone.

What if Jeff were still here? What other amazing records would he have made? These questions bring us to the end of our little walk through conditional structures. Zero, first, second, third and then fourth conditional? Err.. no. The fourth conditional doesn’t exist. Discovering the fourth conditional used to be my professional ambition. I went from thinking ‘If I can discover it, I’ll rewrite the rules of grammar, copyright and become disgustingly rich’ (possible/probable – first conditional) to ‘If I could….I would (improbable – second conditional) to finally giving up on this mad plan and deciding to set up my own English academy as a way to making millions. Not really.

So all that’s left is the mixed conditional. And it’s exactly that. We mix a second and a third conditional so as to refer to present consequences of hypothetical past actions or events. Nina’s influence on music and musicians is massive. Things would certainly be different today if it hadn’t been for what she did and the person she was.

To bring all this to an end, here’s a live version of Mississippi Goddam. It’s perfectly clear what an electrifying performer she was, although it must be said that not all of her performances went so well – she was known to be unpredictable and would sometimes give her audience a hard time if she felt they weren’t giving her their full attention.* Nobody’s perfect but what is beyond doubt is that she was unique and contemporary music wouldn’t have been or be the same without her.

*In this sentence we have ‘would’ and a past tense verb, but it’s not a hypothetical second conditional. Ha! Don’t you just love that? Goddam English grammar! This is because ‘would’ can also function like ‘used to’ for repeated or habitual past actions and the past tense here refers to real past time. So we could say this: If people spoke while she was playing, she used to (would) get angry with them.

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