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Grammar rules say that hadn't is used for unreal past conditions, but why can't we use simple past negation instead of past perfect?

If I hadn't come to the meeting, it wouldn't have happened.

If I didn't come to the meeting, it wouldn't happen.

Does the second sentence also imply that "I did come, that's why it happened"?

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4 Answers 4

The past simple in if-clauses has three functions:

  1. to indicate that something is not true (contrafactual):

    • If I had time, I would help you. (but I don't have time)
    • If I didn't know you were joking, I'd be angry. (but I do know you're joking)
  2. to hypothesise about the future (but conveying that you regard the possibility as remote):

    • If I won a lot of money, I'd retire.
    • If I didn't attend the meeting, I'd probably get the sack.
  3. to refer to habitual past events:

    • If I was late, he would make me work through lunch.
    • If I didn't eat my greens, I got no dessert.

Your sentence (If I didn't come to the meeting, it wouldn't happen) belongs either in category 2. For example:

  • If I didn't come (go is more likely) to the meeting, it wouldn't happen (e.g. I wouldn't get my monthly bonus.) - but I'm definitely planning to attend.

Or in category 3:

  • If (whenever) I didn't come to the meeting, it wouldn't happen (I wouldn't get my monthly bonus.)

The sentence If I didn't come to the meeting, it wouldn't have happened is ungrammatical.

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Shoe- Michael Swan's Practical Usage has a sentence stating that it's commonly used in AE. "If I didn't have my walking boots on I think I would have really hurt my foot" –  Noah Mar 4 '12 at 9:31
    
@Noah, Perhaps an American could comment on whether this construction is common in AE. I wasn't able to find the reference in Swan. Could you tell me which page it is on? –  Shoe Mar 4 '12 at 11:05
2  
That construction sounds wrong to me, although possibly it is used in some regions of the U.S. –  Peter Shor Mar 4 '12 at 11:42
    
@Shoe Page 262(Mixed Tenses 6) –  Noah Mar 4 '12 at 17:17
    
@Noah, I can't find the sentence in my copy of Swan (second edition, published in 1997) and can find no section on mixed tenses. Anyway, I can say with some assurance that in BE If I didn't come to the meeting, it wouldn't happen cannot ever mean If I hadn't come to the meeting, it wouldn't have happened (which I think was your original question). And that If I didn't come to the meeting, it wouldn't have happened is ungrammatical (the claim in my OP). I await with interest any American commenter who refutes these claims. –  Shoe Mar 4 '12 at 19:46

"If I didn't come to the meeting" could reference the future.

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+1: I'd go further than that and say "didn't" in OP's second version could only reference the future. In most cases you'd say "If I didn't go to the meeting", but it's just about possible to use "come" in certain contexts. –  FumbleFingers Mar 4 '12 at 17:24
    
I guess I was think colloquially, but it brings up an interesting question about the use of come and go and their usage in temporal and spatial locations. I feel a question brewing. –  Sam Mar 4 '12 at 17:29
    
I await that with interest! I'm sure there are different connotations/contexts, but I shan't bash my brains out on it unless and until I see your question! –  FumbleFingers Mar 4 '12 at 17:35

Your first sentence is an example of what you may have heard called the Third Conditional. It is used to express something that didn’t actually happen. Your second sentence, on the other hand, is an example of the Second Conditional, which expresses something that is still possible, but which is unlikely.

It’s easier to see the difference with sentences that are positive rather than negative, as these three examples may show.

First Conditional: 'If you run you will catch the train'. This predicts a likely event: running will certainly allow you to catch the train.

Second Conditional: 'If you ran, you would catch the train.' This suggests that the person addressed is unlikely to run.

Third Conditional: 'If you had run, you would have caught the train.' The person addressed didn’t run.

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Reading the comments on another answer, the OP took the sentence from Michael Swan's Practical Usage:

If I didn't have my walking boots on, I think I would have really hurt my foot,

and extrapolating from it, asked whether simple past can be used in conditional statements rather than past perfect for unreal past conditions. The answer is "no". An American would only say that sentence if he still had his walking boots on. So this is a statement with an unreal present condition, and a past consequence. This construction is rare, because consequences tend to occur after the hypotheticals.

Is this construction grammatical in the U.S.? I suspect you would get disagreement among Americans about that. However, I believe that Swan is right about it being used.

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Does it mean that "If I didn't have my walking boots on, I think I would have really hurt my foot" and "If I hadn't had my walking boots on, I think I would have really hurt my foot" convey different meaning? –  Noah May 7 '12 at 18:10
    
@Noan: yes, although it's not much of a difference. –  Peter Shor May 7 '12 at 22:12
    
How about another example from Swan. "If I knew you were coming I'd have baked a cake." –  Igor_g Sep 11 '12 at 13:53
    
@igor_g: Now you've stumped me, because that example sounds okay (although informal), whereas the seemingly similar "If I went over the Tappan Zee Bridge, we wouldn't have gotten stuck in this traffic" sounds horribly wrong. –  Peter Shor Sep 11 '12 at 15:09

protected by RegDwigнt Sep 11 '12 at 14:02

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