Getting Your Tricky Conditionals Right

Past and present tense can get tricky with conditionals.

Neal Whitman, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #720


I’ve had several questions recently about conditionals. Some of them are from listeners asking about kinds of conditionals called the “first, second, and third conditionals.” Meanwhile, a listener named Lorelai has a different question. She understands English conditionals fairly well, but is uncertain about conditionals like this one:

If he died fighting, why didn’t they tell us about it?

The dying happened in the past, but, as Lorelai wrote in an e-mail, “shouldn’t conditional clauses that refer to past actions be in past perfect and not past simple?” In other words, Lorelai wants to know why the conditional clause isn’t “If he had died fighting.” It’s not surprising that she’s confused, and moreover, her question is related to the question about first, second, and third conditionals.

First, Second, and Third Conditionals

Here’s the deal: First conditional, second conditional, and third conditional are not helpful or informative names, and in my opinion they aren’t worth teaching. Worst of all, textbooks that teach conditionals using these names usually forget all about the exact kind of conditional Lorelai has stumbled into. Today we’re going to lay out not three, but four basic kinds of conditionals, and call them by names that are more informative and easier to remember than arbitrary numerical names.

Conditionals and the Subjunctive Mood

You probably expect that if I’m talking about conditionals, I’m going to talk about the subjunctive mood. I’ve talked about the subjunctive in conditionals before, in episodes 160 and 238. But today, we’re going to look at conditionals in a different way, which you may find easier.

Present-Time Open Conditional: The Options Are Open

Let’s take the sentence “If Squiggly knows the answer, he isn’t saying.” This conditional is talking about the present time, about whether something is true right now: Does Squiggly know the answer? We call it an open conditional because Squiggly may or may not know the answer. Either possibility is open. So “If Squiggly knows the answer” is a present-time open conditional.

The present tense can also be used in future-time open conditionals. Adapting Lorelai’s example, we could ask, “If he dies in battle, will they tell us about it?” It’s talking about something that may or may not happen in the future: this person’s death in battle. Present- or future-time open conditionals are sometimes called first conditionals.

Present-Time Remote Conditional: It’s a Remote Possibility

Now let’s talk about the past tense. Of course you know that the past tense is used to describe events that happened at a past time. But that’s not its only function. It’s also used to express something called modal remoteness—that is, something that a speaker considers unlikely or impossible.

Take the sentence “If Squiggly knew the answer, he would tell us.” This is another present-time conditional, because it’s still talking about whether something is true right now: Does Squiggly know the answer? But in this conditional, it’s clear that the speaker believes Squiggly doesn’t know the answer. The past-tense form knew is not showing past time; it’s showing modal remoteness. For that reason, we call this a present-time remote conditional. Present-time remote conditionals are also called second conditionals, though again, I don’t recommend using this name.

Past-Time Open Conditional: The Options Are Open

So far, we’ve talked about present-time conditionals, both open and remote. Now let’s talk about some past-time conditionals. We’ll continue to use our example about Squiggly knowing the answer. This time, it’s “If Squiggly knew the answer, he wasn’t saying.”

In this conditional, the past tense isn’t expressing modal remoteness; it’s doing its regular job of referring to a past time. In this sentence, “If Squiggly knew the answer” is talking about whether something was true in the past: Did Squiggly know the answer? It’s an open conditional because either possibility is open: Maybe Squiggly didn’t know the answer, or maybe he did and just didn’t want to say.

Past-time open conditionals do not have a numerical name. Grammars that use the terms first, second, and third conditional usually overlook them. As a result, English speakers like Lorelai are confused when they find themselves writing past-time open conditionals such as “If he died fighting, why didn’t they tell us about it?” This sentence is grammatical, and it means that the speaker is leaving open both possibilities: That the person died fighting, or did not die fighting. The trouble is that some English grammars completely bypass this kind of conditional in their hurry to get to the other kind of past-time conditional, which we’ll get to very soon.

To recap, the past tense can express past time, as it does in conditionals like “If Squiggly knew the answer, he wasn’t saying.” It can also express modal remoteness for a present time, as in “If Squiggly knew the answer, he would tell us.” However, it can’t do both jobs at once, at least not in standard English. So what do we do when we need to express modal remoteness for a past time? In other words, how do we make past-time remote conditionals?

Past-Time Remote Conditional: We Believe We Know the Answer

This is a job for ... the past perfect tense! It can show both past time and modal remoteness simultaneously. Here’s how our sentence about Squiggly knowing the answer would be phrased if it were a past-time remote conditional: “If Squiggly had known the answer, he would have told us.” Again, we’re talking about whether something was true in the past: Did Squiggly know the answer? This time past perfect tense “had known” shows us that the speaker believes Squiggly didn’t know the answer. The past perfect form “would have told” indicates that the telling did not actually happen.

These past-time remote conditionals are what some grammars refer to as third conditionals, and they’re what Lorelai was thinking about. She could write a sentence like, “If he had died fighting, why wouldn’t they have told us about it?,” but it would mean that the speaker doesn’t believe the person in question did die fighting.

Now I said that the simple past tense can’t express both past time and modal remoteness simultaneously, at least not in standard English. However, the use of simple past tense in past-time remote conditionals has been creeping into American English, and to some extent into British English. Instead of saying, “If Squiggly had known the answer, he would have told us,” many speakers might say, “If Squiggly knew the answer, he would have told us.” I’ve personally noticed that in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, past-time remote conditionals are always formed this way. Although such sentences are usually understandable in context, they can be distracting for speakers who are used to the past perfect tense in these conditionals. My recommendation is to use the simple past in your present-time remote conditionals, and your past-time open conditionals, and stick with the standard past perfect tense for your past-time remote conditionals.

Lastly, I will say one thing about the subjunctive. You can navigate open and remote conditionals without needing to think in terms of the subjunctive, for every verb in the English language, except one. For one verb, and one verb only, the form to express modal remoteness is not always the same as its past-tense form. That’s the verb was. To express modal remoteness, you need the subjunctive form were, as in “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” But was is still fine in past-time open conditionals, as in “If I was out of line yesterday, I truly apologize.”


This article was written by Neal Whitman, who blogs at literalminded.wordpress.com. Check out his blog.

Whitman, Neal. July 19, 2011. “If I Had Known.” Blog post. http://literalminded.wordpress.com/category/semantics/conditionals/, accessed Dec. 12, 2011.

About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, school board. You can search for him by name on Facebook, or find him on Twitter as @literalminded and on his blog at literalminded.wordpress.com.

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