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Past Unreal Conditional, Contractions in ‘Citizen Kane’

Past Unreal Conditional and Contractions in ‘Citizen Kane’
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Citizen Kane, directed by Orson Welles, is widely considered to be one of the best American films of all time.

For example, the British Broadcasting Corporation, or BBC, created a list of the best American films. It placed Citizen Kane at the top.

In today’s program, we will explore the grammar behind one of the most famous lines from Citizen Kane.

“You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man.”

In this report, you will learn about the important expression, “you know.” You will also learn about past conditional usage and shortened forms of words in everyday speaking.

You know

The famous line starts with the words “you know.”

“You know, Mr. Bernstein…”

“You know” is a common expression that is used in everyday speaking. But it does not necessarily mean what you might think it does.

For example, you might hear a person ask: “Do you know my name?” Or they might say: “You know my name.”

This is the literal meaning.

However, the line from Citizen Kane uses “you know” in a different way.

In this case, it is used to show that you have some kind of connection or shared knowledge with another person. Bernstein is Kane’s friend and employee. They know each other well.

In this statement, Kane is thinking about his life. He has a sense of loss or sadness in his voice. He is admitting something that he has been thinking about to a person who is close to him.

That is why Kane begins his statement with “you know.”

This expression has other uses, which you can read about in an earlier Everyday Grammar story called What do you know about ‘you know?’

Past conditional

Now let’s explore the second part of the line:

“…If I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man.”

This line uses what you might call the past unreal conditional.

It involves an if-clause (if I hadn’t been very rich) and a result clause (I might have been a really great man)

The if-clause is in the past perfect, and the result clause uses the structure helping verb + have + past participle.

The helping verb used in the result clause has several possibilities: would, could and might.

The helping verb “would” expresses a desirable result.

The verbs “could” and “might” express a possibility.

Kane is suggesting that if something had been different in the past, then it might have been possible for him to be different.


The past unreal conditional is one of the more complex areas of English grammar because it involves different clauses and uncommon verb structures.

But it is interesting for another reason: pronunciation.

Did you notice that not all of the words were spoken in the line? Listen again:

“…If I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man.”

Notice that this past unreal statement involves contractions – shortened versions of words.

The full version of the statement is this:

“If I had not been very rich, I might have been a really great man.”

While this line would be clearly understood, it does not sound natural to an American.

Americans often reduce or contract words. Had not becomes hadn’t.

Also, if you listen closely to Kane, he faintly says “have,” but he could have also said:

“I might’ve been.”

Or even something like this:

“I mighta* been.”

Please note that this last version is used in speaking only, not in writing.

The reason Americans reduce helping verbs is because they are function words. Function words have a grammatical purpose but do not carry much specific meaning.

In our example, the reason “have” is shortened is because native speakers understand which word is being suggested. It is verbs such as “might” or “would” that are more important for suggesting additional meaning. That is why you might hear statements such as, “I would’ve called you” or “I might’ve been famous.”

Closing thoughts

In today’s report, we explored the grammar behind a famous line in American film. You learned about an expression, a conditional statement, and how words are shortened in everyday speaking.

The next time you watch American films, pay attention to these structures. Then use them as much as you can.

One day, you might tell a close friend:

You know, I’m glad that I followed Everyday Grammar. If I hadn’t listened to it regularly, I wouldn’t have developed such a deep love for English grammar.

I’m John Russell.

John Russell wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

literal – adj. involving the ordinary or usual meaning of a word

past perfect – n. the form of the verb that is used in referring to an action that was completed by a particular time in the past. It is formed by using had and the past participle of a verb.

pronunciation – n. the way in which a word or name is pronounced