"If" sentences


"If you found the test so easy, why did the teacher still fail you?"

"If you had found the test so easy, why would the teacher still have failed you?"

I understand these "if" sentences are called conditional sentences. I read on another grammar page that there are only four kinds (zero, first, second, third), with only the third one capable of describing some past event (i.e. "If I had won the lottery, I would've bought a car.")

Does that mean my first sentence is grammatically incorrect (since the structure doesn't really fit into any of the four)? I think it sounds right, though.

  • foxfirebrand

    Senior Member
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    Welcome to the forums, Starrynight.

    In AE, any number of complex past tenses and moods (pluperfect, past conditional, past subjunctive) are not used-- the simple past seems to suffice for most of them in most cases. Is it "grammatically correct?" Well, grammar texts are really only orderly descriptions of the structure and use of the language, aren't they? Infants don't learn grammar and then expand their vocabularies, they simply imitate people speaking their native tongue, and by the time they're old enough to be taught to read a grammar book, they're native speakers.

    Also, grammar books didn't always exist. They seem to have proliferated in the 19th century, when "philologists," who studied ancient languages and read Medieval grammar books about Latin, realized that no comprehensive grammar of English existed (as English itself hadn't until the 14th century or so), and began to write such books-- to some degree using Latin grammar as a model.

    The best of these books described English as it really existed, and the worst of them made up "rules" that sought to standardize a language which they saw as somewhat chaotic. Imposing these rules onto the spoken language hasn't really worked very well, but it gave the educated classes a way of speaking that differentiated them from the "unschooled," who of course didn't read such books.

    Can you really imagine an ordinary person saying "If you had paid enough money to buy a bus ticket, why would the driver still have refused to let you on the bus?" Instantly recognizable as a grammar-book question.

    Our language used to have declensions and conjugations just like Latin, and gender, and rules up the yingyang. We have shed these things in favor of simplifying our language, and the process continues.

    From the grammarian's point of view, this makes us seem more and more illiterate. Well, it's possible they're right-- we do, after all, spend a lot more time watching movies than reading, and listening to recorded songs than reading lyrics and sheet music and making our own music.

    So the answer to your question is, the use of the simple past in your examples does, as you say, sound right. That means your first sentence is grammatically correct (to modern, descriptive grammarians) and also incorrect (to traditional, prescriptive grammarians).

    For "traditional" you might want to substitute words like "outmoded" or "obsolete" or "irrelevant." If you are an ESL student studying for a test, or have "traditional" teachers to appease, you might not.


    Senior Member
    In my humble opinion, your first sentence is grammatically correct simply because this isn't really a conditional sentence. Here, we have, instead of a condition followed by its consequence, two statements put in opposition, "if" seems not to mark a condition, a hypothesis but means clearly "if it's true that".

    In fact, we have other sentences using "if" but can not be classified in any of 4 kinds of conditional sentences mentionned. For exemple :
    - If A is more intelligent, B is more hardworking
    - She rarely went out, and if she did, it was not for very long
    - If he did, it was only to...

    Hope that I haven't talked nonsense