I had an English test in which one of the questions was:

'If they (listen) ____________ carefully, they might hear the woodpeckers'.

I wrote listen, and it was marked as wrong. Is there a reason to use either 'listen' or 'listened' in this sentence? Thanks in advance.

  • is it not 'are listening'?
    – JMP
    May 9, 2017 at 5:02

2 Answers 2


Both are correct, but different tenses. 'Listened' is more hypothetical, more subjunctive.

  • Thanks! That is what I thought, as even though I am not a native speaker, I have been learning English for about 10 year and both of them seemed correct to me.
    – Manuel B
    May 8, 2017 at 17:47
  • 3
    +1 for "more subjunctive". I like that! Curiously though, if we were to recast it into an even more explicitly subjunctive form, we'd actually end up using the infinitive anyway - If they were to listen carefully (by implication, an unlikely irrealis condition), that would be very surprising. As opposed to If they listen carefully, which I fully expect them to do. May 8, 2017 at 17:59
  • Listened is not hypothetical; it's counterfactual. Listen is hypothetical, since it's in an if clause. Using past tense with present reference in an if clause presupposes the clause is (or was) not true. So both sentences are correct, but the first takes no position on whether they listen carefully or not, while the second presupposes that they have not listened carefully and comments on the results if they had. May 8, 2017 at 22:00
  • Only 'listen' really makes sense. 'Listened' would mix past and infinite clauses. (cf. If they listened, they heard... If they had listened, they might have heard...)
    – AmI
    May 8, 2017 at 23:17
  • @JohnLawler "The type 2 conditional refers to an unlikely or hypothetical condition and its probable result. These sentences are not based on the actual situation. In type 2 conditional sentences, the time is now or any time and the situation is hypothetical. EXAMPLES If the weather wasn't so bad, we would go to the park. (But the weather is bad so we can't go.) If I was the Queen of England, I would give everyone a chicken. (But I am not the Queen.)" from ef.com/english-resources/english-grammar/type-2-conditional
    – grateful
    May 9, 2017 at 9:27

I think you're considering two alternatives:

A) If they listen carefully, they might hear the woodpeckers.

B) If they listened carefully, they might hear the woodpeckers.

It's hard to imagine the situation in which anyone would mean to say the second choice. If they listened carefully (in the past), they might hear the woodpeckers (in the future)? Why would the fact that they listened in the past cause them to hear something in the future?

The problem is not grammar; both choices are grammatical. It just seems like choice A is the only one that would arise in common situations.

  • Let's see if after telling this to my teacher she accepts my answer and I get a 0.2/10 more in my mark
    – Manuel B
    May 8, 2017 at 17:53
  • @Manuel B !Tenga suerte!
    – Chaim
    May 8, 2017 at 18:01
  • Are you saying that 'If I had enough money, I might go to the match' is unlikely / problematic? Sadly, OP seems to have taken your answer as being correct, when 'grateful''s is far better. May 8, 2017 at 22:05
  • @Edwin Ashworth No, I'm not saying that. "If they had enough money" reads as present tense subjunctive, while "If they listened" reads as past-tense indicative, perhaps because of various uses of the word "had," or the possibility of expressing the subjunctive sense of B) more clearly as "If they would listen carefully they would hear the woodpecker." Now that you elaborate I can read grateful's answer, and the original question, your way. (You're saying that by his reference to "different tenses" he meant the present tense in different moods.) But in all I don’t see the situation as very sad.
    – Chaim
    May 9, 2017 at 12:07
  • John Lawler straightens out the answer in his comment. May 9, 2017 at 12:50

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