2

When you describe a hypothetical situation in the past, which is correct?

(1) If I were you, I would have done that.

(2) If I had been you, I would have done that.

Personally, I've heard native speakers speak (1) most of the time. So it seems to me that at least in spoken English (1) is in use. But I'd like to know if this use is legitimate.

1
  • What do you mean by "a hypothetical situation in the past"? Both sentences talk about the speaker's present state of mind. Nov 6, 2017 at 4:41

2 Answers 2

8

Technically, the phrase "If I were you" is not referring to the past. It's referring to a hypothetical situation in the present or the future (subjunctive). So, again, technically, it should be:

Present/future: (1) If I were you, I would do that.

Past: (2) If I had been you, I would have done that.

However, the subjunctive is kind of falling out of use in modern English, and "if I were you" has become a stock phrase for most people. As such, it doesn't have to be conjugated, and can stay as you indicated in sentence (1):

Present/future: (1) If I were you, I would do that.

Past: (2) If I were you, I would have done that.

7
  • 1
    You could say "In your place I would have done that". Sep 7, 2017 at 7:05
  • Are you saying that either works? If so, which is the more natural? And if you were saying it, which would you opt for?
    – listeneva
    Sep 7, 2017 at 9:58
  • @KateBunting Thanks. Isn't "in your place", though, short for either "If I were in your place" or "If I had been in your place"?
    – listeneva
    Sep 7, 2017 at 10:03
  • 1
    @listeneva, in a casual, conversational context, it's more natural to use "If I were you" for both present and past. But in a written context, if you're unsure of your audience or how likely they are to be grammar nitpickers, go with the "technically" correct form for past tense, or better yet, rephrase it as Kate Bunting suggested. I personally would use "if I were you" everywhere because it sounds more casual, more like normal speech... Unless its an essay for an English class and the teacher is a known grammar rule stickler, in which case I would rephrase as Kate suggested. Sep 7, 2017 at 14:25
  • Technically according to who? Or should I say whom? Nov 6, 2017 at 4:40
3

I think that for a counterfactual conditional like this, you need to relate it back to the actual situation, as follows:

A.

"If I were you I would have done that -- but I am not you, so I did not do that (since I am not you, I could not do that)."

As you can see:

  1. "I am not you" refers to a general truth, a situation that holds over a long period of time, past, present, and presumably future.

  2. "I did not do that" refers to a situation at a particular time in the past.

B.

"If I had been you I would have done that -- but I was not you so I did not do that (not being you at the time, it was impossible for me to do that)"

As you can see:

  1. "I was not you" refers to the situation at a particular time in the past -- the specific time that is under discussion. The meaning is "I was not in your shoes at that time".

  2. "I did not do that" also refers to the situation at that particular time.

The difference is fairly clear.

"If I were you" refers to a general hypothetical situation, that of me being in your position.

"If I had been you" refers only to a hypothetical situation at a particular time in the past. The meaning is, "If I had been in your shoes at that time".

This might seem like nitpicking, but a clearer distinction can be drawn with other examples.

C.

"If I were a vampire, I would have sucked his blood."

This refers to a general situation of me being a vampire. Since I am not, in fact, a vampire, I did not suck his blood.

D.

"If I had been a vampire, I would have sucked his blood."

This refers to a situation of being a vampire at that particular time. Since I was not a vampire at that point in time, I did not suck his blood.

This could conceivably be said if the speaker regularly switched from being a werewolf one month to being a vampire the next. In other words, it might simply have been bad timing in his cycle that he was unable to suck the victim's blood that particular month.

E.

"If I had a gun I would have shot the intruder."

Straightforward -- if I were the possessor of a gun I would have shot the intruder.

F.

"If I'd had a gun I would have shot the intruder."

Regrettably, although I own a gun I did not have it with me at the time, so I was unable to shoot the intruder.

G.

"If I weren't married, I would have seduced her on the spot."

But I'm a married man, so I didn't seduce her.

H.

"If I hadn't been married, I would have seduced her on the spot."

The speaker could be divorced now, but at the time he was still married so he didn't seduce her on the spot.

This distinction could be applied to all kinds of situations.

1
  • This answer, in my opinion (I am not a native speaker) explains the difference better.
    – LRDPRDX
    Sep 12, 2021 at 14:55

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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