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I'm a native English speaker (American). I was trying to explain a sentence to a non-native speaking friend, but didn't do a very good job of it. The sentence is:

Sam got to the station just in time to catch the train to the airport. If he had missed his train, he would have missed his flight.

I explained that the words "had missed" could be changed to just "missed", but now I'm not sure. I've researched mixed conditionals in sentences and have found answers that support my use of the language and some that do not. Perhaps being American has made me use the language a bit "less formal" or just plain wrong. If there is anyone that can help me, I'd be most appreciative.

Thanks a bunch.

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    I see only a pure third conditional in your example – mplungjan May 13 '14 at 6:21
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    You are talking about a "past time" situation, and it is one that you know did not occur (modal remoteness), and so, your version with "If he had missed his train . . ." is the one that you want. It uses a past-perfect construction: the past-tense could be used for "past time" and the perfect for the modal remoteness. If you used a version that only used the simple past-tense (instead of the past-perfect construction), then it would be an open conditional, which you don't want. – F.E. May 13 '14 at 6:34
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    PS: I actually prefer Had he missed his train to If he had missed his train – mplungjan May 13 '14 at 8:02
  • I think if you leave out the had, the more natural phrasing becomes "If he missed his train, he would miss his flight". That is, rather than varying "have" to change the tense, we change the tense of the word "miss". – Omnomnomnom May 13 '14 at 15:08
  • “It is clear that a division of conditionals into the zero, first, second, and third categories does not adequately reflect actual usage.” —from “If only it were true: the problem with the four conditionals”, Christian Jones and Daniel Waller, ELT Journal 65:1 pp 24–32 (2011), Oxford University Press, doi: 10.1093/elt/ccp101. – tchrist Jan 24 '15 at 14:27
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Why did you try to replace "had missed" with "missed"? It's fine the way it already is. And as a non-native speaker of English, I would get confused if I were taught a third conditional clause this way.

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In your first sentence you explain that he caught the train. So in the second sentence you can't say "if he missed the train", because you've just told us that he didn't. So the sentence as written is correct, with "had missed".

This is an example using your "if he missed":

Sam was late arriving at the station and was worried. If he missed the train, he would also miss his flight.

This is no longer talking about things that had already happened, but about things which were in the process of happening. So in this case "if he missed" is correct, as it's still not determined yet.

Sam caught the train. If he had missed the train, he would have missed his flight.

This is talking about things which have happened, so "if he had missed" is known to be reflecting on things which might have happened but didn't.

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  • Sam got to the station just in time to catch the train to the airport. If he had missed his train, he would have missed his flight.

What you have there is right.

SHORT ANSWER: You are talking about a past time situation, and it is one that you know did not occur (modal remoteness), and so, your version with "If he had missed his train . . ." is the one that you want. It uses a past-perfect construction: the past-tense "had" could be used for past time meaning and the perfect construction for the modal remoteness meaning. If you used a version that only used the simple past-tense (instead of the past-perfect construction), then it would be an open conditional, which you don't want.

LONG ANSWER:

You don't want to change the last sentence--the one with the conditional--to use the simple past-tense (instead of the past-perfect construction--which is also known as preterite perfect). For if you did, then that version would be an open conditional construction, which is not what you want here. Here is the open conditional for that past time situation(s):

  • If Sam missed his train, he will have missed his flight. -- [open conditional]

That is an open conditional, which means that the speaker doesn't know anything that could affect the possibility of that past time situation(s) of occurring: that is, the speaker doesn't know if Sam had missed his train or not, nor does the speaker have an opinion on that possibility. In other words, the possibility is open.

But that is not the situation in your context. The speaker knows that Sam did not miss his train--the speaker knows that Sam had actually caught it. So there is counter-factuality or modal remoteness involved. To show this modal remoteness, the speaker sticks in another past-tense (a secondary past-tense, i.e. the perfect construction) into the "If P" part (protasis), which creates a preterite-perfect, and then for the second part (apodosis), changes "will" to the past-tense "would". Thus, creates a corresponding remote conditional construction:

  • If Sam had missed his train, he would have missed his flight. -- [remote conditional]

And so, for the "If P" part (protasis): the preterite "had" is used to put the situation into the past time sphere, and the perfect construction ("had/has missed") is used to insert the modality (modal remoteness). And for the "then Q" part (apodosis): there's also two past-tenses--the preterite "would" and the perfect "have missed"--and one is used to put the Q's situation into the past time sphere and the other one is used for modal remoteness.

NOTE: Today's standard English has two past tenses. There is a primary past-tense called the preterite, which is marked inflectionally; it is also commonly called "the simple past-tense". And there is a secondary past-tense called the perfect, which is marked analytically (it is marked by "HAVE" + past-participle). Both past tenses are commonly used for three main usages: past time, modal remoteness, backshift. (Related info in 2002 CGEL, page 139.)

I find that sometimes it helps to construct an open conditional version (if possible), analyze it, and then create a remote conditional version for that (if possible).

CAVEAT: I just realized that your excerpt might be fiction prose, written in past-tense narrative mode. So, if it is, then the version you used in the excerpt is the only version you can use--because of the established conventions of fiction writing.

  • Thanks for all the help... I need to study my language. One more question. What if the first part of the sentence wasn't there and the sentence was simply this: If he missed his train, he would have missed his flight. Is this wrong if we don't have any more information? Thank you very much! – Aaron Derrick May 14 '14 at 18:01
  • I haven't had any coffee yet, so keep this in mind. At first blush, finding a context for that latest example might not be all that easy. Obviously if the "would" was a "will" then it would be an open conditional that is fine: "If he missed his train (yesterday morning), (then) he will have missed his flight (that evening)." In the original, the use of "would" in the apodosis could suggest it could be a remote conditional, one that corresponds to the open conditional ""If he misses his train, (then) he will have missed his flight." A context where that works will probably . . . – F.E. May 14 '14 at 19:22
  • A context where that works will probably also support your original remote conditional "If he missed his train, he would have missed his flight." But if you try to find a context that supports the open conditional version, you have to also be aware that the present-tense ("misses") is used for various different usages besides placing a situation or event in the present time. Also, the word "would" is also used for usages other than simply as the past-tense version of "will". I guess what . . . – F.E. May 14 '14 at 19:31
  • I guess what I'm trying to say is that it is easier to provide a context and then ask if a specific sentence is acceptable for that context. It requires less imagination that way. If you can come up with a reasonable context to support that latest example of yours, then that example will be fine. If you can't, that doesn't necessarily mean that the example is unacceptable ("wrong"), though it might be--but then, students are good at finding counter-examples to prove a teacher wrong, especially for extra points. :) – F.E. May 14 '14 at 19:35

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