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I am confused regarding conditional. I know, for example, if I say:

If he had not insulted me, I wouldn't have slapped him.

this means in reality, he insulted me and I slapped him, but if I am talking about this incident with my friend and my friend says:

You shouldn't have slapped him

and then I ask my friend:

If he had insulted you, what would you have done?

in this situation if my friend says:

If he had insulted me, I wouldn't have slapped him

I know this mean in reality he didn't insult my friend, and this is confusing part. When my friend says "I wouldn't have slapped him" in the above context, does this mean in reality my friend slapped him or not?

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    You're tying yourself up in knots here trying to write about complex hypothetical scenarios in a foreign language (I assume that's why you're inconsistent in where you write negating not, n't). Obviously you just asked your friend what he would do in an imaginary situation that never actually occurred. So in "reality" your friend didn't do anything at all. But English does allow such constructions as In that hypothetical situation, I wouldn't have slapped him [even if / unless] he had slapped me. Which says nothing about what I really did, just what I would have done. – FumbleFingers Oct 12 '18 at 18:20
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    I wonder if the experience of the poster shows that maybe this should be on English Language Learner site? – Keeta Oct 12 '18 at 18:51
  • English Language Learner site – depperm Oct 12 '18 at 18:55
  • While no native speaker would have any difficulty in understanding what is going in the OP's sentences, I do think there is an interesting question being raised here. The first counterfactual (If he had not insulted me, I wouldn't have slapped him) conveys what some call dual meaning (see e.g. here): it expresses 'a supposition while implying the factual state of affairs'. However, – linguisticturn Oct 12 '18 at 21:13
  • the second counterfactual (If he had insulted me, I wouldn't have slapped him) does not convey dual meaning—it does not imply the factual state of affairs. And I think it is an interesting question why it is, precisely, that the first counterfactual conveys dual meaning, but the second one does not. – linguisticturn Oct 12 '18 at 21:13
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Both your examples have exactly the same structure: first, you describe a hypothetical situation (something that did not happen); then you describe the expected result of that situation.


In your first example:

If he had not insulted me, I wouldn't have slapped him.

the condition is:

he had not insulted me

(this is not true - what actually happened is that he did insult me), and the expected result is:

I wouldn't have slapped him.


In your second example:

If he had insulted me, I wouldn't have slapped him.

the condition is:

he had insulted me

(this is not true - what actually happened is that he did not insult me), and the expected result is:

I wouldn't have slapped him.

  • That's not quite the end of the story, though; besides structure (and sheer logic), there are also pragmatic considerations, and it is this pragmatic aspect that the OP is really getting at. Pragmatically, If he had not insulted me, I wouldn't have slapped him additionally implies that he did, in fact, insult the speaker, and that the speaker did, in fact, slap him. – linguisticturn Oct 12 '18 at 20:26
  • If the same reasoning were applicable to all sentences of the same structure, then the second sentence, If he had insulted me, I wouldn't have slapped him, would have pragmatically implied that he didn't in fact insult the second speaker and that the second speaker did in fact slap him. But the second sentence, in the present context, carries no such pragmatic implication. And it is an interesting question why that is, exactly. – linguisticturn Oct 12 '18 at 20:26
  • Some people might describe the situation as follows: the first counterfactual conveys dual meaning: it expresses 'a supposition while implying the factual state of affairs' (see e.g. here). But the second counterfactual does not convey dual meaning—it does not imply the factual state of affairs. – linguisticturn Oct 12 '18 at 21:07
  • @linguisticturn I am afraid I don't follow your logic at all. Perhaps it would be better to post your own answer, instead of the numerous comments both here and to the question. – michael.hor257k Oct 12 '18 at 21:41
  • Point taken—except that I don't really have an answer. – linguisticturn Oct 12 '18 at 21:47
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would

used to express an intention or plan after a verb in a past tense

not

used to make a word or group of words negative, or to give a word or words an opposite meaning

I wouldn't have slapped him in the above context means they had no intention of slapping him for the hypothetical insult if it had come.

  • Please help me out.Am I right? in my first sentence insult occured and I slapped him.But in my second sentence in the above context insult didn't occur and my friend didn't slap him. – Sonia Khan Oct 12 '18 at 19:00
  • If he had not insulted me,I wouldn't have slapped him.->insult occurred and you slapped him. If he had insulted me,I wouldn't have slapped him->insult still occurred but you didn't slap him – depperm Oct 12 '18 at 19:02
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    I understand the explanation of first sentence.But i think second sentence means insult didn't occur and I didn't slap – Sonia Khan Oct 12 '18 at 19:25
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I think this is a question that can best be approached with a little help from logic definitions. I'm no philosopher, so please forgive this somewhat bumbling attempt.

In logic, the idea if A, then B is called implication. But there are many ways of understanding this relationship. From a nice little introduction from lander.edu here are 4 ways to think about "If ... then ..." statements:

  1. Logical: E. g., "If all philosophers are thinkers and John is a philosopher, then John is a thinker."

  2. Definitional: E. g., "If Carol is anemic, then Carol has a low concentration of erythrocytes in her blood."

  3. Causal: E. g., "If you strike the match, it will light."

  4. Decisional: E. g., "If you donate to educational television, then the company you work for will match the amount."

So the first example:

If he had not insulted me, [then] I wouldn't have slapped him.

is a causal implication. A caused B to happen.

Your final example:

If he had insulted me, [then] I wouldn't have slapped him

is a decisional implication. B is decided on when A happens.

The second "if ... then ..." statement:

If he had insulted you, [then] what would you have done?

is outside of any of these groups. It is an entirely hypothetical question, rather than a statement. It asks what would happen should A occur.

So with these definitions in mind, let's look at why the first conditional statement implies that the action already took place. Let's remove a few of the particulars, and look more generic cases.

If A had not happened, then I would not have done B - this is a statement of cause and effect. The hypothetical part of this statement (the "if" statement) is that A did not take place, which then implies that A did happen, and so B followed.

If A had happened, then I would not do B - the hypothetical part of this question is that A will occur. This statement then defines what would follow should A take place.

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