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I came across this youtube video with the following grammar question.

Choose the correct sentence.

  • a. If you had learned the lyrics, you would be singing in the choir.
  • b. ...
  • c. If you learned the lyrics, you will sing in the choir.
  • d. ...

The answer was a, but I thought it was wrong, because according to my high school English grammar knowledge (as a second language), either of the following is correct, and both are different from a.

  • If you learned the lyrics, you would be singing in the choir.
  • If you had learned the lyrics, you would have been singing in the choir.

I instead chose c, thinking it's just a casual sentence meaning "Given that you learned the lyrics, you will sing in the choir."

I scanned through the comments, but I couldn't find anyone thinking this question has a problem. Am I misunderstanding something?

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  • 1
    English has no past perfect subjunctive, thank goodness.
    – Lambie
    Dec 23, 2022 at 18:24
  • 1
    In fact, English has no subjunctive mood at all. It does, however, have a subjunctive clause type, one that is headed by a plain form of the verb, as in *It is vital that I be kept informed".
    – BillJ
    Dec 23, 2022 at 19:19

2 Answers 2

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There are lots more conditionals than the three you learned in ESL class.

The first, second, and third conditional are:

If you learn the lyrics, you will sing in the choir,
If you learned the lyrics, you would be singing in the choir,
If you had learned the lyrics, you would have been singing in the choir.

However (and I am simplifying greatly), all of these conditionals assume that the two actions happen in the same time frame. In the first, this sentence implies that both learning the lyrics and singing in the choir will happen in the future. In the second, they are both in the present, and in the third, they are both in the past.

In this scenario, you learn the lyrics first, and sing in the choir second. This fact lets you use mixed conditionals. Two relevant possibilities here are:

If you have learned the lyrics, you will sing in the choir,
If you had learned the lyrics, you would be singing in the choir.

The last one, where you didn't learn the lyrics in the past, and you aren't singing in the choir in the present, is presumably the only grammatical possibility among your choices.

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  • You've let me know the keyword "mixed conditional" to google. Shouldn't your example sentence for the third conditional be "..., you would have been ...", since the current one is a mixed conditional?
    – xiver77
    Dec 23, 2022 at 17:27
  • @xiver77, yes; I made a typo. Thanks for the correction. Dec 23, 2022 at 17:30
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What the poster is misunderstanding (his words, not mine) is clear from the title: the structure in question involves neither the subjunctive nor the past perfect.

The “if, had, would” structure is apparently called the “Type 3 conditional” (as a native spearker, I had to look this up) and is used in English where in Romance languages such as Italian one uses “if + subjunctive + conditional”. Whereas in, say, Italian there are two separate tense combinations — (imperfect subjunctive + conditional present) and (pluperfect subjunctive + conditional perfect) — in English ‘had’ is used for any hypothetical situation in the past, although there are two conditional options.

Thus, the pluperfect use of had learned is illustrated here:

“I am glad that you had learned the lyrics before last week’s performance”

which differs from the perfect:

“I am glad that you have learned the lyrics and are ready for next week’s performance”

However in the conditional structure had learned is employed in both:

“If you had learned the lyrics you would have been able to sing in last week’s performance”

and

“If you had learned the lyrics you would be singing in the performance”

In fact, in the latter the conditional present, would be, is ambiguous and can refer to the present — you are listening to the performance at the moment instead of singing in it — or future — you would have been selected and would be singing in next week’s performance.

Footnote

On reflection, the situation is not so different from the use of the subjunctive in Romance languages. The imperfect subjunctive is used for a hypothetical action in the present, e.g.

Se mi aiutassi, finirei il lavoro.
If you helped me, I would finish the work.

Likewise, if you do express the idea with a rather contorted subjunctive structure in English, there are only two tense possibilities:

If you were to help me, I would finish the work.
If you were to have helped me, I would have finished the work.

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