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I want to express the consequences of something which I am not sure actually happened in the past.

  • intention: Maybe my brother studied, or maybe he didn't, but if he really did, then he will pass the exam.
  • phrase: If my brother studied, he will pass the exam. (the tenses used might not match my intention.)

My question is which combination of tenses should I use to express what I meant above ?

I have found the following three cases in different comments or posts:

  1. If I was rude last night, I apologize. (I am not sure I was rude).
  2. If you mailed the package on Monday, it probably arrived on Wednesday. (I don't know if you really mailed it)
  3. If he was at home last night, as he says he was, he would have answered the phone. (Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't)

My confusion comes from the if + Past Simple combination, which represents the second conditional. It has nothing to do with the past.

Are these 3 examples correct ? If so, it means that in these cases, if + Past Simple does not have the meaning from the second conditional.

2 Answers 2

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There is a lot to unpack here. First of all, not all the cases you presented fall under the same conditional. There are four conditionals in English, from the zeroth to the third.

When you are talking about something that started happening in the past, and is still happening, you should use the present perfect tense (first conditional):

If my brother has studied hard, he will pass the exam

This means your brother kept studying till the exam.

Unlike the second case when you say:

If I was rude yesterday, I apologise

You are no longer rude; you are already apologising. The present perfect wouldn't be correct here, unless you have been ranting since that yesterday till the moment you decided to apologise.

Now your very last sentence should follow the third conditional:

If he had been at home like he claimed, he would have answered the phone.

This case is different, as both the condition and the result happened in the past, plus you doubt it even happened at all.

I recommend checking this out: Conditionals

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  • I see. Thank you! But which conditional does "If I was rude yesterday, I apologize" example fall under ? I guess it's none of the well-known 4 ones, but rather a mixed one. My concern was that because of the similarities with the second conditional, it might not be grammatically correct. But as @Edwin Ashworth said, it actually is. Jul 19, 2023 at 17:09
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1, 2 and 3 show punctive events in the protases (1 and 3 showing notional punctualness, approximating a single shortish timespan by a point in time ... and indeed (1) could use 'was being' to indicate prolonged rudeness over say a couple of hours).

But notional punctualness does not work well in the original.

  • If my brother has studied [thoroughly], he will pass the exam

using present perfect is more idiomatic. This shows durative (/iterative) application, with present-day ramifications.

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  • I see why present perfect fits much better. Thanks! But 1, 2 and 3 are still grammarly correct, aren't they ? Jul 19, 2023 at 15:30
  • Yes, they are grammatically correct ('Grammarly' is the name of a program) and, perhaps even more importantly, idiomatic (sound like something a native speaker would say). Jul 19, 2023 at 16:32

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