Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

If I Had Known

Posted by Neal on July 19, 2011

Back when Doug was in preschool, we took him to the doctor one day for a rash on his face and chest. The diagnosis: fifth disease. Fifth disease? What the hell was that? After Googling it, I learned that another name was slapped cheek syndrome, which made more sense. I didn’t object so much to a disease being called fifth disease, except that that was the only disease I’d come across with a numeric designation. Why hadn’t I ever heard of the first four diseases, or the diseases from the sixth onward?

As it turns out, diseases 1-4 go by the names measles, rubella, scarlet fever, and Duke’s disease, while the sixth is more commonly known as roseola. Furthermore, these numbers don’t encompass all diseases; just childhood diseases that involve rashes. That’s a little better, I guess, but why is it only the childhood rash diseases that got named this way? It reminded me of comics in the newspaper that do occasional running-gag strips on a theme like “Signs You’re the Parent of a Teenager” or “Essential Activities of Summer”, and each strip is labeled with a number. They don’t start with one and go sequentially; they label each entry with a randomly chosen number, as if to say, “The list goes on and on.” Ads in glossy magazines do this, too.

With that in mind, here is the topic suggestion from a reader named Karl, the second winner of my Grammar Girl book giveaway:

I’ve … noticed that 80% or more of Americans don’t use the past perfect form of verbs when the other clause in the sentence is a third conditional. They use the simple past form instead. I find myself doing it when I speak fast. For example, talking about a party which has finished: “If I knew you were there, I would have said hello” instead of using “had known”. Do other English speakers in other countries do the same thing?

“Third conditional”? This kind of conditional sentence is what I think of as a past-time counterfactual. Actually, I’m now moving to the terminology of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, and will refer to these as past-time remote conditionals. Remote refers to the falseness, or at least unlikelihood, of the situation described in the if clause. “If I had known you were there” — but I didn’t know. Anyway, this is the second or third time a commenter has used the term third conditional on me, so now I was finally curious enough to try to find out where this term came from, and what first and second conditionals might be. I still don’t know where it came from; the earliest I’ve found in Google Books is in an 1822 grammar of Spanish.

However, I can now tell you that a first conditional is a present- or future-time open conditional. For example, If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands, or If you touch my stuff, I’ll kill you. It’s an open question whether you are knowingly happy, or whether you’ll touch my stuff. Maybe you are, or will; maybe you aren’t, or won’t.

A second conditional is a present- or future-time remote conditional, such as If you really loved me, you’d do it, or If I won the lottery, I’d quit my job. The implication is that you don’t really love me, and winning the lottery is unlikely.

The third conditional, of course, is the past-time remote conditional. I got all this from an online grammar reference from Capital Community College of Hartford, Connecticut. Now that I know about first, second, and third conditionals, though, not only do I still think the names are poorly chosen and uninformative, but they also miss a fourth possibility: past-time open conditionals. I’ve laid them all out in the table below, and you can verify that the bottom left corner is the one that got left out in the cold. It’s the Rodney Dangerfield of conditionals. Not because it has bulging eyes, starred in movies such as Back to School and Caddyshack, and does standup comedy with lots of one-liners, but because it gets no respect. But you probably figured that out.

Open and Remote Conditionals

What’s interesting about present-time remote conditionals and past-time open conditionals (the light green squares) is that they both use a past tense verb form: If he was/were sorry in the examples. CGEL looks at it this way: The past tense has several functions in English, only one of which is to express past time. Another function is to express “modal remoteness”–i.e. unlikely possibilities or impossibilities. Each of those functions is shown in a light green square. (For every verb except one, the verb form in these two squares would be identical. I’ve chosen the one and only verb for which there’s a difference: be, with its was for the open conditional, and were for the remote one. And even that distinction has disappeared for many speakers, who uniformly use was in sentences like these.) When both functions are in play, then a “double past tense” does the job. I show this with the darker shade of green in the bottom right, with the if clause in the past perfect tense: If he had been sorry.

I’ve noticed what Karl is asking about in past-time remote conditionals, too; for example, there was If only we swam as good as we look. Then there’s the old song “If I Knew You Were Coming, I’d’ve Baked a Cake”, which I first heard sung by Cookie Monster on Sesame Street. But how prevalent are these nonstandard conditionals, really? It’s hard to search for any and all conditionals that use a simple past tense or a past perfect tense, so instead I decided to search just for If I knew and If I had known in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), which contains 425 million words from 1990 to 2011. The search turned up 198 tokens of If I had known, 196 of which are past-time remote conditionals, like this one:

This was not a publicity stunt. Of course, if I had known that all of this would happen, I would have done this years ago!

(The other two were indirect questions, in which the if can be replaced by whether, as in, “He asked if/whether I had known about the cozy relationship between News of the World and Scotland Yard.” That’s not an actual example, but I forgot to record the ones I found.)

COCA produced 609 tokens of If I knew. Of these, 48 are present-time remote conditionals; for example:

I’ll say anything on a runway. I’d speak Hebrew or Arabic or Swahili if I knew them, anything to hedge my bets. But today I am too exhausted to bargain with God.

Sixteen of them are past-time open conditionals. Look, here’s one now:

Ethan was just a friend. … And if I knew what was good for me, I’d keep it that way. (past-time open conditional)

Twenty-two were irrelevant. The remaining nineteen are all nonstandard past-time remote conditionals, along the lines of:

We all know Julianne Moore is an Oscar-nominated, Emmy award-winning actress, but who knew that she liked to clean? If I knew that, I’d have given her Tuesdays at my house for a little light dusting.

Extrapolating that last number to the 609 hits for “if I knew”, I estimate that there are 120 nonstandard past-time remote conditionals. Add to that the nearly 200 standard past-time remote conditionals in COCA, we have a total of about 320 past-time remote conditionals. Of them, about 38% use the simple past tense instead of the past perfect. Well short of Karl’s guess of 80%, but still pretty sizeable. And of course, the numbers for what he hears and reads may well be nearer to 80%. Also, when I narrowed the search to If I knew then and If I had known then, I get a total of 37, only eight of which use the standard past perfect tense. In other words, 78% of the tokens used the simple past, right in line with Karl’s guess. I wonder if the signaling of past time by then makes it less necessary for the verb to do so.

To get an idea whether Americans or British used the nonstandard phrasing more, I looked at the British National Corpus (BNC), which contains 100 million words from 1985 through 1993. For If I knew, I got 90 hits, only two of which were nonstandard:

I would never have given him the sweet if I knew there was acid in it.
if I knew what I know now, I would never have left Pontypool.

For if I had known, I got 18 hits. That makes two nonstandard conditionals out of 20, for 10%. So, to the extent that the older BNC data still reflects modern usage, and to the extent that my single example is representative of past-time remote conditionals more generally, Americans are almost four times as likely to use a simple past tense in them as British speakers.

Feel free to run your own searches in COCA, BNC, or other corpora (maybe the Corpus of Historical American English) with other verbs. Let us know what you find. Karl, thanks for your suggestion!

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23 Responses to “If I Had Known”

  1. dw said

    Americans are definitely less likely than the English to use the perfect tense in many situations. The classic exchange is:

    AmE: “Did you eat breakfast?”
    BrE: “Well, I had breakfast on Friday June 3rd 1995. Which day are you talking about?”

    For me, as a BrE speaker, the simple past tense (“did you X?”) requires a specified context that is somewhat remote from the here-and-now. If the context is closely related to the present time, the perfect must be used: “Have you eaten breakfast?”.

    • Ran said

      I’m an AmE speaker, and I’m somewhere between your hypothetical AmE speaker and your hypothetical BrE speaker. For me “Did you eat breakfast?” can easily mean “Did you eat breakfast this morning?” (i.e., the context does not need to be specified, it can merely be implied), but it cannot mean “Have you eaten breakfast?”: that is, for me “Did you eat breakfast?” requires that it now be too late for breakfast-eating. I might perhaps ask that if, at 11:30 AM, someone were complaining about how hungry they are. And, to be honest, despite what you say, I can’t shake the suspicion that most AmE speakers and most BrE speakers use it the same way.

      However, where I do think we differ is that I (and, I believe, most AmE speakers), will accept “Did you eat breakfast yet?” as meaning roughly “Have you eaten breakfast?”: the “yet” makes all the difference. “Did you eat breakfast yet?” would mean something like “I’m about to go grab a bagel, if you want to come with”, or “There’s a big meeting in half an hour, so you might want to eat before then”, or whatnot. (Personally I think I would more likely say “Have you eaten breakfast?” in either of these situations, but I wouldn’t bat an eye at “Did you eat breakfast yet?”)

      So I think you might be exaggerating the AmE/BrE difference slightly. I don’t know. Any other speakers want to weigh in?

      • dw said

        “Did you eat breakfast yet?” is impossible in my personal grammar: the “yet” implies relevance to the present time, but the use of the simple past tense denies such relevance.

        Having lived in the US for several years, I’m pretty used to it now. But it still feels wrong to me :)

        I’ll let other BrE speakers speak for themselves. I may be an extreme case.

      • Ran said

        @DW: Oh, certainly. I think you’re absolutely a typical BrE speaker in that respect. It’s just bare “Did you eat breakfast?”, with no “yet”, where I think AmE and BrE are closer to each other than you were suggesting.

  2. pj said

    ‘Did you … yet?’ definitely sounds American, and ‘wrong’, to my British ears too, Dw. And (as your supposed AmE/BrE exchange also implies) I’d be far, far more likely to speak of ‘having’ rather than ‘eating’ breakfast, which I suspect is another transatlantic difference, so ‘Have you had breakfast [yet]?’ for when it’s not too late, and ‘Did you have breakfast?’ for when it is.

    But back to the topic of past-time remote conditionals, eh? I’m pretty sure I always make them the standard way – to the extent that I’ve internalised the lyrics of the ‘baked a cake’ song, actual performance of which I’m not very familiar with, as ‘If I’d known you were coming…’ and was surprised to find just now that I was wrong!

    Another song with the non-standard construction, though, and this one written by British English speakers, is Faces’ ‘Ooh la la’, where the chorus is:
    ‘I wish that I knew what I know now
    When I was younger
    I wish that I knew what I know now
    When I was stronger.’

  3. Florence said

    “Modern usage”…that’s what it’s all about today. People who should know better get sloppy when talking. If you bring up the topic at a party or other gathering, they comment, “But you know what I mean.” As if proper usage doesn’t matter anymore. Seems like the whole English language is slowly being watered down.

    Thank you for the opportunity to comment on your blog.

  4. Jonathon said

    This may be a stupid question, but how does “If I would have known” fit in? Is it essentially just a variant of the past remote “if I had”?

  5. Karl said

    Karl here. Neal, In the search of the Corpus of Contemporary American English, did you use spoken, written, or both? I think more people would write it “correctly” and speak it “incorrectly”. I think it also depends on the formality of the conversation and the speed of speech.

    “First/second/third conditional” for me comes from the ESL world. It’s a simple way of explaining conditionals for non-linguists or non-experts. Fancy terms don’t go over well for people that can barely put together a sentence in English. I don’t use the term “gerund”, either–I say “verb-I-N-G” and write (verb)ing, and then reinforce with examples.

    Jonathon, another post by this blogger covered “if I would have”:

    Regarding American use of present perfect, yes, Americans don’t often use it for yes-or-no “yet” questions. And we also don’t use present perfect for near-past situations. When someone leaves a bar and goes outside and ten seconds later someone comments about it, I think Americans usually say “he went outside”, whereas Brits would say “he’s gone outside”. This then frees up “have/has gone to (place)” to take the place of “have/has been to (place)”!

    • Ran said

      Re: “When someone leaves a bar and goes outside and ten seconds later someone comments about it, I think Americans usually say ‘he went outside’, whereas Brits would say ‘he’s gone outside’”: I think you’re right, at least about Americans: I would definitely say “he went outside”, or “he just went outside”, not “he’s gone outside”. (Can’t comment on what Brits would say, though.)

    • Neal said

      Fair enough regarding the 1-2-3 terminology for ESL. So what do you call past-tense open conditionals? Are they a variety of first conditionals? Are they a topic that one avoids in favor of more useful or common areas of the grammar?

    • ASG said

      “First/second/third conditional” for me comes from the ESL world. It’s a simple way of explaining conditionals for non-linguists or non-experts. Fancy terms don’t go over well for people that can barely put together a sentence in English.

      If I may provide a different perspective, I also teach ESL and I loathe the first/second/third notation. Just loathe it. I want to tear the pages out of every textbook that uses it. I do not think it is “simple” (there is no reason for those numbers to attach to those particular grammatical forms) and I do not think it is helpful (especially since there are plenty of ordinary, real-world cases that can’t be categorized with 1/2/3, which confuses students who are trying to read any text outside of the artificial examples in their books). It’s exactly the kind of fussy, arbitrary teaching style that I want ESL teaching to get away from.

      I have a lot of sympathy for trying to avoid technical language (I’m with you on “gerund,” e.g.), but “remote” is not a technical word, and I think it is much easier for an ESL student to learn how a possibility can be “remote” than to try and keep track of which conditional is supposedly #2 and/or wonder why the sentences she’s hearing on TV don’t fit the pattern that her teacher is insisting on.

  6. The Ridger said

    Florence: Nobody is being sloppy. They’re simply using “if” instead of reversing the verb and subject. Had English remained less word-order constrained, they might not be so doing. (Ask you your questions without “do”? Why not?)

    I continually marvel at the way people label every speech change they encounter as “sloppy” “lazy” and/or “ignorant”…

    • Neal said

      Other than the idea of sloppiness, I don’t see what this comment has to do with what Florence said.

      • Florence said

        Thank you, Neal…I appreciate that. You understood what I was saying. Someone probably called us “you guys” today, and set me off! : ( Will it ever stop?
        Why can’t they just say “you” (plural understood)?
        This is what I’m talking about. I DID get off the subject, but while I was commenting, thought I’d throw this in too.

      • Ran said

        @Florence: Your question seems to be rhetorical, but I’ll answer it anyway . . . I, for one, can’t say “‘you’ (plural understood)” because for me “you” is understood to be singular unless it’s in a context that licenses a plural reading. For me, something like this:

        (1) Do you know what you’re supposed to do?

        is almost unambiguously singular. If the speaker is addressing multiple people, I would think the speaker means something like “Does each of you know what he or she is supposed to do?”, with the question being directly independently to each person. (Or, I might just assume that the speaker is addressing one specific person, and wonder why (s)he’s not making clear which one.) If the speaker actually means to refer to multiple people as a group — the group is supposed to do something, and the speaker wants to confirm that the group knows what that is — then (s)he would have to say something like one of these:

        (3) Do you guys know what you’re supposed to do?
        (4) Do y’all know what you’re supposed to do?
        (5) Do you guys know what you guys are supposed to do?
        (6) Do y’all know what y’all’re supposed to do?

        with (5) being awkward. That is, the second “you” can be understood to be plural, but only if the first one is explicitly marked.

  7. pj said

    Oh, I meant to say too, I transcribe a lot of informal British English speech, and the variation from the standard I hear most frequently is actually the insertion of an extra ‘have’, as if to match the ‘would have’ in the second clause: ‘If I’d have known you were coming, I’d have baked a cake.’

  8. BrE speaker here. “Did you…?” and “Have you…?” mean the same thing for me, but obviously quite a bit depends on the situation. Personally, I would use “have you…?” but “did you…?” isn’t jarring to my ears. I’m probably in a special case because 99% of my editorial career has been in American English. But then again, I have had a highly Europeanised upbringing as well, so I tend also to speak or write the tag question “no?” rather than “right?” in informal conversation. I have to say, though, the open/remote chart above is in line with my own speech and writing 90% of the time. Just my twopence worth.

  9. Florence said

    This is Florence. I took your comment in just the way it was intended. Thank you. As for me, I don’t feel it is necessary to approach two or more people and ask, “Does each of you understand?” No, I think that’s too wordy. I would think incorporating eye contact with those individuals as you ask, “Do you understand what you’re supposed to do?” would
    fix that problem. This is the way I was taught, and I’m an English major. Wish I’d gone on and become a certified linguistics teacher. Did not know what a passion it would be to me. Have a good day!

  10. [...] the currently standard system for English conditionals. I wrote about them most recently in July in this post. In my grammar, a sentence like If I sit here, my pants will get wet suggests that me sitting here [...]

  11. Hi, I’ve already commented on your piece on the GrammarGirl website, but I’d like to make a couple of comments here. As an EFL teacher, I have to agree with Karl that ’3rd conditional’ is a bit less of a mouthful and easier for students to understand than ‘past-time counterfactual’.

    Secondly, the dissatisfaction with the 1st, 2nd, 3rd system seems to arise from the fact that it can’t account for sentences like – ‘If he’s sorry, why isn’t he apologising’. But for me, although there is an ‘if’-clause here, this is not a conditional: there is neither condition nor result; it means something more like – ‘if it’s true that’. We could equally well say – ‘Why isn’t he apologising, seeing he’s sorry’

    I can’t see that your system differentiates between this and a sentence that really does express a condition and a result, such as – ‘If he’s sorry, he’ll aplogise.’, in other words classic 1st conditional. And in this case I don’t think there’s any way we can replace the ‘if’. And where would zero and mixed conditionals fit in? They are easy to fit into the numbered system.

    I think we do need to do more to teach students about ‘if’-sentences which don’t imply a condition and result, but I don’t see why we have to throw out the baby to do so.

    Thirdly, to me and I suspect many like me in the UK at least, this distinction between ‘If he were sorry, he’d apologise.’ and ‘If he was sorry, he never apologised.’ is pretty meaningless, although I’ve seen it used elsewhere. The fact is, that like it or not, the subjunctive ‘were’ is fast disappearing, with all three (highly educated) candidates at the last election saying ‘If I was prime minister, I’d …’ In TEFL we talk about ‘Unreal past’ rather than subjunctive, and teach students they have a choice between ‘was’ and ‘were’.

  12. Reblogged this on Our Two Englishes.

  13. […] was just talking to my ESL students about open and remote conditionals last week, after having them watch my video about them. What tense is would, I asked them? Right, […]

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