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Which of the following sentences is correct?

If you are caught stealing you will be fined.

If you were caught stealing you will be fined.

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2 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The first is fully grammatical, the second is at least dubious. However a third possibility is grammatical:

If you were caught stealing you would be fined.

The difference between your first example and mine is that the "... were ... would" is usually said to be hypothetical; but in fact these are both hypothetical.

There is a difference: the "If you are ... " implies that you are stealing, or that you are definitely intending to do so. "If you were ... " carries no such implication.

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I don't see it like this. To me, the "If you are ..." implies that there is at least a small possibility that you might be stealing, but it's not definite. The "If you were ..." implies that there is no possibility that you might be stealing. As such, the second is clearly somewhat more polite, but the first is not an insult (which your interpretation would make it). Possibly this is a U.S./U.K. difference. (But if you put a strong stress on the word 'caught', both versions could mean that you are stealing.) –  Peter Shor Oct 14 '11 at 15:14
    
@PeterShor: I think you are partly right, that I overstated the degree of certainty; but I think you're understating it. –  Colin Fine Oct 14 '11 at 15:27
    
I would take the first as an insult for implying that I am likely to steal or have been stealing. –  z7sg Ѫ Oct 20 '11 at 13:16
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Foreign learners of English are taught that If you are caught stealing you will be fined is the First Conditional and that If you were caught stealing you would be fined is the Second Conditional. The First Conditional describes a situation that might very well happen. The Second Conditional describes a situation that is much less likely to happen. There is a Third Conditional, If you had been caught stealing you would have been fined. Of the three only this describes a truly hypothetical situation.

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I've encountered these phrases before, but only on this site. I guess that if they are used for teaching L2 English, that would be why. –  Colin Fine Oct 20 '11 at 16:14
    
I understand the distinction between 1st/2nd/3rd Conditional, but I think saying only 3rd is "truly hypothetical" depends on a narrow definition of the word hypothetical that's no more "true" than several others. By some definitions, something which we know did not happen can't actually be described as hypothetical at all - it's simply untrue or contrafactual. –  FumbleFingers Jan 16 '12 at 19:04
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@FumbleFingers: I agree, a loose use of the word. –  Barrie England Jan 16 '12 at 19:47
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