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I often see in movies that the people engaged in a dialogue use the past simple tense in a conditional situation where the correct tense seems to be the past perfect. Is this because the past prefect tense is too out there in an ordinary everyday conversation?

Example:

A: "Why didn't you tell me about the party Simon?"

B: "Because I didn't know there was a party. If I knew there was one, I would tell you."

In the above example (and a lot of other similar situations), I assume the correct sentence would be "If I had known, I would've told you." But hardly ever have I seen such a phrasing being used to talk about the past, especially in informal conversations.

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    (1) English speakers tend not to use the past perfect tense when it's not necessary to make the order of events clear. (2) Move scriptwriters often like to use informal grammar, so possibly judging the frequency of past perfect conditionals by how frequently they appear in movies gives you an incorrect impression of how often they're used in real life. Using the past perfect there doesn't sound excessively formal to me; I think you'd hear it in real life more often than you do in movies. – Peter Shor Jul 9 '20 at 10:23
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In the interaction

A: "Why didn't you tell me about the party Simon?"

B: "Because I didn't know there was a party. If I knew there was one, I would tell you."

B isn't just talking about that one party. They are stating a general rule that they will tell A about parties when they know about them. That's why their comment is being made in past subjunctive, rather than past perfect.

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  • How does this differ from the answer already given by @Greybeard? – jsw29 Jul 17 '20 at 20:56
  • It's more concise, and it links the difference in tense (past subjunctive vs. past perfect) to the difference in meaning much more explicitly. Greybeard's answer doesn't even use the words "past subjunctive". – Rivers McForge Jul 17 '20 at 22:40
  • Why call it past subjunctive if it carries present-tense semantics? Isn't the parallel indicative statement: "If I know, I will tell you"? – Gary Botnovcan Jul 18 '20 at 0:38
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    Er....do you want me to call it by an incorrect tense name? A past subjunctive phrase often carries present tense meanings, in English as in other languages. “If I had $1,000,000....” is generally followed by what the present-day speaker would do with the money, not what they would have done with it 20 years ago, or when they were in diapers. – Rivers McForge Jul 18 '20 at 0:55
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Here in Britain, anyway, there's much more than a tendency among native speakers not to use any tense they're not forced to.

Please remember, the UK Government admits about 20% of teenagers leave secondary school at best bordering on being functionally illiterate.

"Perhaps they consider it 'too correct' " is very much an understatement.

Many if not most UK speakers of English never consider anything of the kind and if they did, many would not understand what you're Asking, let alone any Answer.

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To me: "If I knew there was one, I would tell you." = "If I knew [at any time] that any party existed, I would tell you." > I would always tell you about parties of which I am aware.

This differs in nuance from

If I had known that there was one, I would tell you =

If I had known [at that time] that the party to which you refer existed, I would have told you.

Also compare

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B: "What do you think of dogs?"

A: "I hate dogs! They are dangerous and create mess."

B: "I have a dog."

A: Oh... If I had known that you had a dog, I wouldn't have said that.

and

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B: "What do you think of dogs?"

A: "I hate dogs! They are dangerous and create mess, but If I knew that you had a dog, I wouldn't say that.

And, agreeing with Peter Shor,

I assume the correct sentence would be "If I had known, I would've told you."

The past perfect is rather formal and it is not often used in conversation - other than in descriptive narrative to provide context/background[1] - the simple past is usually used.

[1] See my second example above.

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    As a side note, in casual conversation in many areas of the US (particularly the South), one may hear the following ungrammatical construction used in lieu of the past perfect: "If I would have known, I would have told you." – RobJarvis Jul 9 '20 at 13:45
  • Can you explain why anyone would want to use “past perfect” for "past conditional" sentences? Are you saying "If I knew there was one, I would tell you" is past simple? If your example works it's not that anyone considers it "too correct" but simply that no-one considers it at all. "…If I knew there was one, I would tell you" is quite unrealistic. If you could find half a dozen real examples, that might be helpful. Do you doubt this would be better Answered at SE English Language Learners? – Robbie Goodwin Jul 11 '20 at 21:03
  • @RobbieGoodwin If I knew there was one, I would tell you" is quite unrealistic. It appears that your comment is subjective as you cannot think of an example. I'm sure others can and have. I would ask you to imagine that "A" constantly asks "B" for a solution to a problem. "B" consistently replies that there is no solution. Finally, and in frustration, "B" replies as above. Likewise, an interrogator demanding of a prisoner that the prisoner tell him where a missile base was when the prisoner possesses no information about missile bases. – Greybeard Jul 14 '20 at 9:16
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    @Greybeard, I am somewhat unclear about the relationship between the last part of your answer, where you say that you agree with Mr. Shor, and the rest of your answer. The core of your answer, as I understand it, is that the OP's example is textbook-correct, provided that we interpret the speaker's intentions in a certain way (the speaker is referring to parties generally, rather than to a particular party). This seems to me to be very different from Mr. Shor's explanation that 'scriptwriters often like to use informal grammar', – jsw29 Jul 17 '20 at 21:07
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    @Askeladd, did you mean 'I wish I saw Phoebe first'? If so, the example would seem to confirm Mr. Shor's explanation. – jsw29 Jul 19 '20 at 16:14

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