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I was taught that an unreal conditional sentence always begins with если бы..., i.e. бы always immediately follows если. However, I recently came across the following examples that indicate that there is variation, and that the variation is meaningful:

Если ты бы пошёл в театр, я бы пошёл с тобой.

If you went to the theatre, I would go with you.

Unreal conditional, action in the present.

vs

Если бы ты тогда пошёл в театр, я бы пошёл с тобой.

If you had gone to the theatre, I would have gone with you.

Unreal conditional, action in the past.

Are these translations accurate? If so, what variation is possible in the word order of если бы and what do the different word orders mean?

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Does бы have to follow immediately after если?

No, not at all.

Considering a phrase Если бы ты тогда пошёл в театр... бы/б can be moved almost anywhere¹, except in the very beginning of the sentence and in-between a preposition and its noun. All the sentences below are grammatically acceptable:

  • Если б ты тогда пошёл в театр...
  • Если ты б тогда пошёл в театр...
  • Если ты тогда б пошёл в театр...
  • Если ты тогда пошёл бы в театр...
  • Если ты тогда пошёл в театр бы...

However, placing бы/б at the very end makes it sound somewhat clumsy, like if you've decided what exactly you want to say at the very last moment.

Is there a difference or preference as to where to put бы/б?
Since one can put an emphasis on different words in a sentence, stressing

  • ты to express that it should've been you, as opposed to someone else
  • тогда - then, as opposed to some other date or time
  • пошёл - given some context it could be walk, as opposed to drive, but in general it is went, as opposed to e.g. stayed home
  • в театр - to the theater, as opposed to somewhere else

Positioning бы next to (either before or after) the stressed word makes it sound more natural and in texts - when the choice of intonation is up to a reader - placing бы in front of the stressed word helps writer convey the intended intonation.

Now if you wonder about the difference of бы vs б - grammatically there is none. Commonly бы would be used if the next word starts with б; some people would use б if the next word starts with a vowel and бы otherwise, but those aren't rock-solid rules. The choice is mostly made based on the preference of a speaker or, say, the foot of a verse.

(¹) Upd: You can exploit the "free word order" even further and move если around, making the phrasing more casual and somewhat archaic. Same rules as with бы apply, but если can appear in the beginning of the sentence. Если can even switch positions with бы, though if you put some distance between бы and если it will delay the point where the reader or listener will be able to distinguish a conditional phrase from a suggestion statement (one without если), making it sound somewhat weird.

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Note that the essential difference between your two Russian sentences is in the presence of the word тогда in the second one, while the word order in the first one is just within the usual Russian "free word order" boundaries, nothing special.

Naturally, the most neutral way to say it is Если бы ты ..., the change of the word order is usually meant to signify something, to serve a purpose. Since the context of the first sentence is limited, the most obvious purpose of the inversion is to highlight ты, "you, not the others", like "[I don't like theater so I didn't go there, but] if you went, then I'd go with you, [too. I wouldn't bear it being the only man there among all those boring old ladies.]" — in square brackets are reconstructed probable parts of the context that are missing. Whatever the actual situation was, ты is highlighted there, when spoken it would also carry a logical stress.

When learning a language, the rules teach us the standard, neutral ways of saying things. In real conversation or text those rules are often broken, always for a reason. Mastering a language also means mastering the fine art of breaking those rules in such a way that doesn't mutilate your speech, but only clarifies it and makes it more natural than when all the rules are observed.

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Are these translations accurate?

Yes, but difference between 2 examples is word тогда. It shows to past (in this case). Here the word order does not matter.

Если бы always indicates the past or the future, but never the present.

Если бы ты пошла со мной, я бы купил мороженое

in denends of context, maybe:

  • If you came with me, I would buy ice cream
  • If you come with me, I will buy ice cream

But next examples is equal:

  • Если бы ты пошла со мной, я бы купил мороженое
  • Если ты бы пошла со мной, я бы купил мороженое
  • Если пошла бы ты со мной, я бы купил мороженое
  • Если со мной ты бы пошла, купил бы я мороженое
  • ...
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  • > Если бы always indicates the past or the future, but never the present — You are wrong, it can well mean present, for example: Если б я был султан, я б имел трёх жён ("If I were a Sultan, I'd have three wives") – It's about "now", about the present. – Yellow Sky May 21 at 16:32
  • @yellowSky, but we are talking about the fact that he will one day be able to have three wives in the future. That is what I wanted to say. – Vik Williams May 22 at 9:43
  • No, in the future is "Если я буду султаном". And do you mean that in a 1960s Soviet film they'd have sung about a real possibility of becoming a monarch and indulging in polygamy? – Yellow Sky May 22 at 9:55
  • @yellowSky, no matter what they mean in the film. When I say "Если бы у меня был компьютер" - that means, now I don’t have it, that's all. – Vik Williams May 22 at 11:27
  • Yes, yes! "Now I don’t have it" — "now" is the present, and you say in your answer that eсли бы never indicates the present. Please, correct your answer. – Yellow Sky May 22 at 11:31

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