Exactly in which category of grammar does this type of sentence fall?

What if I told you …

Why don't we use tell instead of told, as it sounds this event has happened in past. Can anyone explain this in detail?

1 Answer 1


Because that is the form we use in English for counterfactuals. Historically it was the past subjunctive, but in Modern English that is distinct from the ordinary past in precisely one case: I/he/she were rather than was. This is why some people say

If I were to tell you, ...

(Others have lost this and say If I was to tell you ...)

Teachers of English as a foreign language refer to this as the second conditional (a phrase I had never heard until I started reading this site).

What if I tell you ...

is the so called first conditional, and refers to an unknown future, rather than a counterfactual. With a first-person subject, there's not too much difference in meaning, but if I tell you is saying it is quite possible that I will tell you, whereas if I told you is considering it as a hypothesis, probably less likely.

See Second conditional in Wikipedia for more information.

  • (+1)Limitations of communication-:technical jargon-:someone who specialises in a field while explaining to other persons who are not specialists in that field uses technical jargon .Therefore, they may not understand the meaning of many such words.
    – Argot
    Jan 20, 2014 at 19:26
  • 1
    Actually, the whole of the answer is the first sentence, which I might paraphrase as "because that's how we do it". The rest is commentary.
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 20, 2014 at 19:36
  • 1
    I have taught English language, and we do refer to this as the 2nd conditional. It is used for imaginary future events and is formed with "would" and the past simple (to put it simply). eg "What would you do if you had a million dollars?" (the "would" is implied in the example: "what would you do if I told you..."). "What will you do if I tell you" is for a likely event, eg "What will you do if it rains tomorrow" when the weather report says it probably will rain. "What would you do if I told you" suggests you are about to actually tell them, but it is actually still an imaginary possibility.
    – nxx
    Jan 20, 2014 at 22:04

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.