Consider the following excerpt:

He couldn't follow. Just couldn't. Because if he had, he would have been [...]

As a non-native speaker, I am unsure about whether to use either did or had to express what would have been if the character followed.

What is correct or could one use both?

  • 1
    This is just personal opinion so I won't post it as an answer, but I think that both are acceptable but "did" would be better. Usually with sentences like this, I mentally insert the verb that's being referenced to make sure it still makes sense, so in this case it would be "Because if he did (follow), he would be x". However, you could arguably use "had" with the mutation of the verb being implied. To wit, "Because if he had (followed), he would have been x". – John Clifford Jan 27 '16 at 12:25

The difference between "If he did" and "If he had" is the same as the difference between the forms they are ellipsised for: "If he did follow" (or "If he followed") and "If he had followed".

The difference between these is that "If he had"( = "If he had followed") is irrealis (or counterfactual): it makes explicit that he didn't follow, and that this is a hypothetical.

"If he did" (= "If he followed") is not irrealis: it leaves open whether or not he followed.

In this case, given what precedes, we know that he did not follow, so there is no practical difference. But in other circumstances there might be. "If he had" implies that the speaker knows that he didn't, but "If he did", does not have that implication.

  • 2
    I think it's worth noting 32 matches for didn't happen because if it did in Google Books, as against just 8 for didn't happen because if it had. It's a little curious considering the context makes it clear we're talking about a counterfactual rather than a "not-yet-known" postulated past (which as you say is more explicitly conveyed by had). – FumbleFingers Jan 27 '16 at 12:54

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