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When we talk about Unreal Past using The Third Conditional we know what really happened.

Example: "If I hadn't had a lot of money, I wouldn't have gone with her that summer and we wouldn't be together now." Here I know that I had a lot of money. I know that I went with her that summer, and I know that we are together now. "If I had had a lot of money, I would have gone with her that summer and we would be together now." Here I know that I didn't have a lot of money. I know that I didn't go with her that summer, and I know that we aren't together now.

But, what if we don't know? Example: You don't know which way was chosen by your friend, but depending on it, there could be different consequences in the past, present or future. "If she chose this way, we will meet her when we get there." (Future possible consequences) "If she didn't choose this way, we won't meet her when we get there." (Future possible consequences) "If she chose the other way, she could meet/may have met wolves." (Past possible consequences)

Another example: The speaker is someone like a police investigator and is thinking about a suspect. The speaker doesn't know for sure whether he stole the money or not, but believes that if the suspect is really guilty/really stole the money, he will leave/is going to leave the country soon. "If he stole the money, he will leave the country soon." (Future possible consequences)

Another example: You are thinking about your old friend from your childhood. You don't know what have happened to her. And you say to yourself. "If she passed her exams that day, she has a lot of money now." (Present possible consequences)

One more: I was reading Dostoyevsky’s novel and there was a sentence which I tried to translate. It is something like: “If he was with her that night we went away(the night when we went away), I will definitely kill him when I see him again.” (Future possible consequences) We want to show cause and effect connection. But we don't know whether he was with her that night or not. Sometimes we can use "Present Perfect" in 'If-clause', but sometime as in this example the time period is finished so we have to use Past Tense.

To sum up: The past cannot be changed by the present and the future. The past can only be(‘could have only been’ if you like) changed by the (earlier)past. The present cannot be changed by the future. The present can be changed by the past and the (earlier)present. The future can be changed by the past, the present and the (earlier)future. This is how our universe works. There is no other way. So:

Present → Present (Zero Conditional) (Real) If you heat ice, it melts.

Present → Future (First Conditional) (Real) If she (already)has a car, she will come to the meeting.

Future → Future (First Conditional) (Real) If it rains, we will cancel the trip.

Present → Present (Second Conditional) – We know what really happens. (Unreal) If I spoke Chinese, I would go to China every year.

Present → Future (Second Conditional) – We know what really happens. (Unreal) If I were rich, I would buy a mansion.

Future → Future (Second Conditional) – We know what is going to happen. (Unreal) If I won a lottery, I would give half the money to charity.

Past → Past (Third Conditional) – We know what really happened. (Unreal) If I hadn’t studied hard, I wouldn’t have got that job.

Past → Present (Mixed of Third and Second Conditionals) – We know what really happens. (Unreal) If I hadn’t spent all her money, she would be rich now.

Past → Future (Mixed of Third and Second Conditionals) – We know what really happens. (Unreal) If she had told me, I would arrive there earlier (I know that I’m going to be late).

Can you see what is missing?

  1. Past → Past (??) – We DO OR do NOT know what really happened. (Real) If I came home late, she got upset. (We know) If they met each other, they probably got married. (We don’t know) (They lived 6 centuries ago so we can’t say: If they HAVE met each other, they ARE probably married.)

  2. Past → Present (??) – We do NOT know what really happened. (Real) "If she passed her exams that day, she has a lot of money now."

  3. Past → Future (??) – We do NOT know what really happened. (Real) “If he was with her that night we went away, I will definitely kill him when I see him again.”

Now can you spot the perfect symmetry? 6 cases which are real and 6 which are unreal to fit all the laws of the universe. These are the conditionals we have in the Russian language.

We think about a real possibility in the past (something that may or may not have happened) and its possible past OR present OR future result. You do NOT know whether it happened or not, unlike The Third Conditional(or The Second Conditional), where you DO know whether it happened or not.

The questions are:

Can we use such sentences in English?

If we can, why do some English speakers say that we can't?

Are my example sentences grammatically correct in relation to English grammar?

What do we call them (Which conditional are they)?

These questions are so common in my country because in the Russian language we use such conditionals all the time especially in literature. A lot of people ask the same questions but can't find out the answer.

Thank you thorough reader! I hope this is going to be clear for everyone.

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  • Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer.
    – Community Bot
    Dec 14, 2021 at 9:06
  • 1
    This question has been bothering me since I started learning English. I would really appreciate any help on this. Dec 14, 2021 at 10:14
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    If he was with her that night we went away, I will definitely kill him when I see him again is perfectly good grammar. Don’t get too hung up on the categories; they’re meant for English language learners, and their attendant simple examples reflect that. It’s not how we are taught the conditional, if we’re taught it at all. Dec 14, 2021 at 21:24
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    These are all valid: Factual/present: If [when] she does her homework, she gets dessert. Factual/past: When she was a child, if [when] she did her homework, she got dessert. Predictive/present: If she finishes her homework today, she will get dessert tonight. Predictive/past: If she finished her homework yesterday, she will get dessert tonight. Predictive/present: If he is with her now, I will kill him when I see him. Predictive/past: If he was with her yesterday, I will kill him when I see him. Dec 14, 2021 at 21:25
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    @TinfoilHat Let's please stop answering in comments, ok? I'm absolutely positive that this entire matter is completely and even authoritatively answered here. Feel free to crib, but please put it in an answer not a comment. The TLDR is of course that "numbered conditionals" are pure poppycock unrelated to native-speaker use, poppycock that’s actually dangerous for someone who’s as competent an English-language learner as our translating asker clearly is. Also see this answer.
    – tchrist
    Dec 14, 2021 at 21:32

2 Answers 2

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There are only four conditional possibilities in English:

Past Real.

Past Unreal

Non-past Real.

Non-past Unreal

English doesn't have a true future tense (conjugation): it uses various present tense forms to talk about future time.

You are asking about real possibilities about which the speaker doesn't know if they happened or not. They are not unreal or hypothetical events.

Thus

If they met each other, they probably got married.

Is a past real conditional. The speaker is not sure if the action in the if-clause happened; but he is not posing an unreal condition. And he is talking about a past event (met). The sentence can be rewritten

If they met each other (and I don't know if they did or not), they probably got married.

The tense of the "then-clause" doesn't matter for the categorization of this "type" of conditional. All that matters is that it is real, past. You can put the verb of the then-clause in either the past (like it is here) or in the non-past, as in

If they met each other, they probably get married (today/tomorrow).

Noting that the present simple can refer to either present time (today) or future time (tomorrow). You can also use other constructions to refer to future time: 'they'll probably get married', 'they're probably gonna get married', 'they'll probably be getting married', etc.

Your sentence

If she passed her exams that day, she has a lot of money now.

is another real, past conditional. And you can construct the then-clause to refer to whatever time you want. Here you are using the present tense to refer to present time (now). But 'she has a lot of money' can also apply to future time (she has a lot of money tomorrow), as can various other constructions including 'she'll have a lot of money' and 'she's gonna have a lot of money'.

An example of a non-past real is

If they arrive today (and I don't know if they will or not), I'll give them a million dollars.

The if-clause is not talking about a past event, but a real event which the speaker doesn't know will happen or not. He is NOT posing a hypothetical event.

In turn, the non-past unreal could be stated as

If they had arrived today (and they didn't), I would have given them a million dollars.

And the present unreal conditional can be stated as

If they arrived today (but they didn't), I would give them a million dollars.

The so-called first, second, third, zero, mixed, etc conditionals are just teaching/learning aids which have limitations.

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  • Thank you! I was thinking if I could use such "A real possibility in the past and its possible past OR present OR future result" sentences. Because I didn't find them in the typical conditionals (0, 1, 2, 3, mixed). As you wrote them I draw a conclusion that I can. Sorry for my bad English. Dec 15, 2021 at 15:37
  • This doesn't make sense: If they met each other, they probably get married (today/tomorrow). Nor does this: If she passed her exams that day, she has a lot of money tomorrow. Dec 15, 2021 at 16:00
  • I wrote what I meant :)... I am simply saying that you can use the present tense in the main clause of past real...and that this present tense can refer to either present or future time. As in 'I buy a car today/tomorrow'. The present simple is one of many ways to refer to future time,although it's not the most common way.
    – shumble
    Dec 15, 2021 at 16:13
  • But I can still say: "If they have already met each other, they will probably get married." (I don't know whether they have met each other or not). I think it's much easier. Because I think if we don't talk about specific time in the past, it's better to say in "Present Perfect". (real) Dec 15, 2021 at 16:22
  • Or we have to use a time marker of the past. "If she passed her exams that day, she has a lot of money now." (past - present) “If he was with her that night we went away, I will definitely kill him when I see him again.” (past - future) All of them about a real possibility in the past and its consequences in the present or future. Dec 15, 2021 at 16:25
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I think you need the subjunctive in English for your three proposals. Some English speakers don't grok subjunctive. I've always liked it but it came to make more sense to me when I learned Spanish. I will take your ?? sentences, which don't work as proposed, and convert them to nice subjunctive sentences.

  1. If I had come home late, she would have become upset. If they had met each other, they probably would have married. (I'm avoiding using a form of "get" because of the US-UK divide on that word.) If they had met each other, they would probably have married.)

  2. If she had passed her exams that day, she would have a lot of money now. If he had been with her the night we went away, I would definitely have killed him when I saw him again.

  3. If he were with her the night we went away, I would definitely kill him if I see him again.

The killing example has several possible variants. The ones I gave you were chosen arbitrarily.

So, that's what I think, now let the experts tear this apart! I haven't pored over the comments because I'm a bit frustrated that the armchair experts haven't written any answers.

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  • I'm afraid you didn't understand what my question was. I know how to talk about hypothetical events. I talked about a real possibility in the past (something that may or may not have happened) and its possible past OR present OR future result. You do NOT know whether it happened or not, unlike The Third Conditional(or The Second Conditional), where you DO know whether it happened or not. "If she chose this way, we will meet her when we get there." Dec 15, 2021 at 15:27

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