What is the difference between the following two statements?

If I went home for dinner, I took a glass of soft drink.

If I went home for dinner, I would take a glass of soft drink.

Are both of them correct? If not, why can't we use the second one? And if I say: "Would both of them be correct?" instead of "Are both of them correct?", which one would sound more natural?


4 Answers 4


If I went home for dinner, I’d have a soft drink is an example of the Second Conditional (I’ve changed the wording slightly to make the English sound more natural). The Second Conditional is used for a situation when the action envisaged in the if clause is unlikely. It is normally used to say what might happen now or in the fairly near future. However, the construction could also be used by a speaker describing something in the past, particularly in some kind of narrative. Used this way, it suggests that on those occasions on which the speaker went home for dinner in the past he was in the habit of having a soft drink. If I went home for dinner, I had a soft drink can be used in the same way (but it cannot be used as an alternative to the normal use of the Second Conditional).

  • +1. I should give up looking for a question you haven't already answered. Commented Jan 15, 2012 at 16:14
  • Thanks, Barrie. Is it the 'would' part that makes the whole difference? I am kind of confused with the structure as both "took" and "would have" seems simple past to me. I am probably taking a wild guess. Any thoughts?
    – user17857
    Commented Jan 15, 2012 at 17:36
  • You'll have to help me out on this one. Surely if the action envisaged in the "if" clause is unlikely is in play, it would be If I went home for dinner, I would have had a soft drink? I read both of OP's examples as simply conveying that sometimes he went home for dinner - and that whenever he did, he took a soft drink. I don't get any sense that either wording implies anything different about how often he went home for dinner. Commented Jan 15, 2012 at 17:43
  • @FumbleFingers: ‘If I went home for dinner, I would have had a soft drink’ envisages a situation in which the speaker considers what would have happened had he gone home for dinner, with the implication that he didn’t. Now, consider a police officer interviewing someone suspected of drinking while driving. Police officer: ‘You said that you usually went home for dinner. Did you have an alcoholic drink on those occasions?’ Suspect: ‘No, officer, if I went home for dinner, I would have a soft drink.’ Commented Jan 15, 2012 at 19:04
  • I still don't see that. My feeling is if the speaker (as suspect) really wanted to convey that he didn't go home, he'd probably say ‘If I had gone home for dinner, I would have had a soft drink’. Corresponding in my own example to I didn't see him do that. If I had, I would have taken no notice. Which in any real-world context I can imagine would probably be followed by some additional disclaimer, such as the word "anyway". Commented Jan 15, 2012 at 19:18

Normally — meaning under the most usual readings — the first one would be wrong and the second right. There is a way to read it that makes the first one also correct, but it is a rare reading. Because English doesn’t have its notional tenses clearly marked as inflectional ones, I’m going to change the verb to be, which is the only place the distinction can be seen in the orthrography.

  1. If I was at home, I ate dinner by five o’clock, but if I was at work, I never ate before seven o’clock.
  2. If I were at home, I wouldn’t have to drive after dinner.

The difference is that in the first sentence, there is no question that the verb in the if clause is in the indicative. In fact, there you can change out the two instances of if for when or even whenever, because it represents customary or repetitive action. If this were a Romance language, one would use an imperfect tense not a perfect one, because the action in the if clause is continuous, not completed.

In the second sentence, the mode of the verb shifts into fantasy-land. It is a hypothetical. It no longer takes an indicative mode, but rather (in Romance terms, at least), a (past-)subjunctive one. And the corresponding then clause now takes a conditional tense.

Although some people don’t like applying terms derived from Romance sequence of tenses to English, I think it can help clarify things. Just because you don’t have a visible inflection in most cases doesn’t mean that it is not a ‘tense’ or ‘mood’; those concepts do not require an orthographic shift in the verb’s inflection to have the sense of the clause shift from known, real, and true to some other situation.

You can make the sentences more complex by shifting the verbs into perfect tenses, but the essential indicative-vs-subjunctive nature, or if you must, real vs unreal, remains.

  1. If I was at home that night, I must have eaten alone.
  2. If I had been at home that night, I would have eaten alone.

Here it is becoming less clear, but the same distinction still applies. One final possibility, which is the rare one, I think, is when both clauses are in the simple past indicative. Because English doesn’t distinguish completed action as clearly as Romance languages do, this can be a bit fuzzy to look at, but the idea is the same.

  1. If I was at home, the office was dark.
  2. If I ate early, you ate early.
  3. If I called you, you answered right away.
  4. If I gave you grief, you gave me cheers.
  5. If I am at home, I always have a snack around o’clock.
  6. If I am at home, I answer my own calls.
  7. If I am at home, I will take out the trash before the garbage trucks arrive.
  8. If he has shown up early, I shall not be pleased.
  9. If he has shown up early, he can’t come in.
  10. If he has shown up hearly, I’m leaving.
  11. If I put down the pencil, will you stop nagging me?

None of those has any subjunctive or conditional in either clause. Even the last one has (what a classicist would call) the present perfect in the first clause and the future perfect in the other, but they are both still indicatives of one sort or another, not subjunctive or conditional. These, in contrast, are not:

  1. If I were you, I would say nothing.
  2. If I called, would you answer?
  3. If I had called, would you have answered?
  4. If I put down the pencil, work would grind to halt.
  5. If I had put down the pencil, work would have ground to a halt.
  6. Unless it were for a good cause, I would not donate my time and energy.

The only time you still have a mix of indicative and subjunctive is with a lest clause, which still demands a subjunctive mood in English.

  • He will say nothing at all, lest it be misconstrued as criticism.

I don't see anything wrong with either of OP's examples. Structurally speaking, I can't actually see any difference between the first one and...

I don't think I saw him do that. If I did, I took no notice.

...where to be honest I think it would be rather stilted to say If I had, I would have taken no notice.

To pronounce otherwise seems like the kind of pedantry so often associated with the subjunctive.

  • 'If I did, I took no notice.' seems to imply 'I might have, but then, I took no notice.' rather than as suggested.
    – Kris
    Commented Jan 16, 2012 at 7:12
  • @Kris: OP's first version doesn't contain enough context to say exactly what it might be intended to mean. I just took one possible approach and rephrased it to show that we're not grammatically obliged to use the subjunctive after "if". This question is about grammar and what "sounds natural", not semantics. Commented Jan 16, 2012 at 15:11

I have never heard a conditional sentence like the first one and I'm not sure if it's grammatically correct, but the second one is conditional sentence of type two, talking about an imaginary situation. It means that if it ever happens that you go home for dinner, you will take a glass of soft drink.

You may want to change the first sentence to a conditional statement of type three:

If I had gone home for dinner, I would have taken a glass of soft drink. (but I didn't, and I have not)

With the third conditional we talk about a condition in the past that did not happen.

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