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"If you had seen him as a child, you would agree that he is extraordinary."

In this sentence, changing the past perfect to simple past strikes me as wrong, and changing the "would agree" to "would have agreed" also strikes me as wrong. But what I'm left with is something that looks like a hybrid conditional. Basically, the first part of the sentence talks about then, and the second talks about now.

I would like to know whether this sentence is grammatical to begin with, and if it is, whether conditional sentences must always be expressed as on of the three types of conditionals.

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This is perfectly valid. It is saying that if you had seen him as a child in the past, you would agree now that he is extraordinary now. –  David Schwartz May 9 '12 at 3:51
See the referenced paper in my comment to Barrie for sound reason to disabuse oneself of all this “Nᵗʰ Conditional” nonsense that gets shoved down people’s throats. It’s a synthetic device (or perhaps better put, a harmful fabulation) that just doesn’t work for real English corpora. –  tchrist May 9 '12 at 13:28
Yes, thank you! I've always thought that that these Nth conditional things greatly restricted expression. :) –  Kaiser Octavius May 9 '12 at 14:48

3 Answers 3

If you had seen him as a child, you would agree that he is extraordinary.

This is a mixed Conditional. It is not the 3rd Conditional.

3rd Conditional: - The third conditional is used to talk about things which DID NOT HAPPEN in the past.

If you HAD SEEN him as a child, you WOULD HAVE AGREED (then at some point in the past) that he is extraordinary.

Mixed Conditional: -

If you HAD SEEN him as a child, you WOULD AGREE (now at this point) that he is extraordinary

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The sentence is fine. Ignore the nonsense about "2nd conditionals" etc and then the sentence won't look problematic any more.

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Yes, the customary division of conditionals into three categories, plus the present conditional, is an artificial device, which fails to capture many of the variations actually found. Nevertheless, it is a helpful simplification for foreign learners, and it is in that context only that it is normally used. –  Barrie England May 9 '12 at 6:32
@BarrieEngland Indeed so. Obligatory reference to “If only it were true: the problem with the four conditionals” by Christian Jones and Daniel Waller, published in ELT Journal Volume 65/1 January 2011 (Oxford University Press); doi:10.1093/elt/ccp101 –  tchrist May 9 '12 at 13:26
I'm still curious about this and other "sequence of tense" malarkey in the teaching material of other languages: overall, is its error rate actually lower than if you just use the rule "use the tense that you would expect to use"? –  Neil Coffey May 9 '12 at 16:44

Now that Shoe has educated me on what the 3 conditionals are, I can say for sure that no, it is not true that "conditional sentences must always be expressed as one of the three types of conditionals." Mixing is allowed.

Your sentence "If you had seen him as a child, you would agree that he is extraordinary" is perfectly fine English. David Schwartz is exactly right when he says it is saying that if you had seen him as a child in the past, you would agree now that he is extraordinary now.

There is no problem with the first part of the sentence referring to the past while the second part refers to the present.

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Conditional 1: I will be happy if she comes. Conditional 2: I would be happy if she came. Conditional 3: I would have been happy if she had come. But native speakers often mix these up for all kinds of reasons. Hybrid conditionals are far from rare and are not ungrammatical. –  Shoe May 9 '12 at 5:20
@Shoe, Thank you for spelling out the 3 conditionals. Can you tell me where I would be happy if she were coming to my party fits in? –  Old Pro May 9 '12 at 5:35
Conditional 2 can refer to the (contrafactual) present or to the future. Present: If I were you, I would .. (but I am not you). Your party sentence fits in here because you know in the present that she is not coming. Future: I would be happy if she came. (You don't know whether she will come. You will be happy if she does but you regard it as unlikely.) –  Shoe May 9 '12 at 6:12
Don’t believe in all this Nᵗʰ Conditional bogosity. It’s been shown to be just so much rubbish. –  tchrist May 9 '12 at 13:32
@tchrist, Pedagogic grammars for non-native learners of English traditionally introduce the conditional by differentiating between the 3 basic tense combinations and their associated meanings (for example, Cambridge Grammar of English, 2006, p748). These combinations do indeed reflect very common patterns in English syntax, and as such are helpful for beginning learners to master. The terms give teachers a shorthand way to refer to these patterns. What is unhelpful is when learners then erroneously believe that these are the only combinations possible, as seems to be the case with the OP. –  Shoe May 9 '12 at 16:59

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