Can someone please tell me if these sentences are correct? I prefer number one. Here I am trying to talk about a past condition that didn't actually happen because the person had the example sentences and they did understand.

  1. If I didn't have the example sentences, I wouldn't have understood the text.
  2. If I hadn't had the example sentences, I wouldn't have understood the text.
  • 2
    Why do you prefer #1? Familiarity? This is what many (maybe even most) native English speakers would write and say, it's true, but that's only because they don't know traditional (but now high-level) English grammar well enough to know how to use the past subjunctive (hypothetical/unreal condition).
    – user21497
    Nov 6, 2012 at 9:00

5 Answers 5


If you are talking about an event or state that didn’t happen, the if clause needs the past perfect construction, and the main clause needs to consist of would have + past participle. This is sometimes known to foreign learners of English as the Third Conditional. Such a sentence imagines something that might have happened, but didn’t, and it is now too late to do anything about it.

What this means for your examples is that the second would be the normal way of putting it. The if clause consists of the past perfect hadn’t had and the main clause consists of wouldn’t have followed by the past participle understood. If you find this difficult to follow, it may become a little clearer if you make the sentence positive: If I had had the example sentences, I would have understood the text.

  • +1. You could have added something like If I did not have the example sentences, I would not understand the text or more positively If I had the example sentences, I would understand the text.
    – Henry
    Nov 6, 2012 at 8:35
  • @Henry: Those two sentences are present subjunctives, not past subjunctives; therefore, they aren't germane to an answer for a question about a past hypothetical.
    – user21497
    Nov 6, 2012 at 8:56
  • @Bill Franke: I see no subjunctives. Nov 6, 2012 at 9:07
  • Unreal hypothetical conditions in the past use past perfect (pluperfect), e.g., "If I hadn't had a cold, I wouldn't have sneezed during my coronation" vs. "If I hadn't been sick, I wouldn't have sneezed during my coronation". Both are past subjunctives that are parallel to the OP's question. If they're not subjunctives, then what term would you use to label them? "Third conditional" is just another way of saying "a structure used for talking about unreal situations in the past".
    – user21497
    Nov 6, 2012 at 9:18
  • 1
    @BarrieEngland: Okay. You've convinced me to stop using the term subjunctive and to stick with unreal conditions. Thank you for the citations.
    – user21497
    Nov 6, 2012 at 10:03

If I didn't have the example sentences..., using the present 'have', must refer to the present, and so would have to go on ...I wouldn't understand the text. If referring to the past, you must use the past form had, as in example 2.

  • Points in imaginary time can be imagined as present or past, so the past reference is lost. "If I were not here (yesterday evening), you would have left" is as good as "If I were not here (right now), you would leave". May 2, 2014 at 4:26

Strictly speaking, the second is the normal construction. This is a form of the conditional that didn't happen. Here is an explanation:

If I hadn't had the example sentences, I wouldn't have understood the text. You had the examples that's why you got the text.

The second part of the conditional could also come to the present:

If I hadn't gotten the keys, I wouldn't be able to go to my apartment now.You are probably on the way to your apartment.

That said, in some parts of the United States, the first form also seems to be common in spoken English. So don't be surprised if you hear something similar.

  • What does "If I hadn't got the keys" mean? "If I hadn't picked up the keys and put them in my pocket" or "If I didn't have the keys"? AmE is "If I hadn't gotten the keys", or has that too changed in the 30 years since I left? And the first form is ultracommon in writing as well in a world where people write as they speak rather than to communicate clearly. The second sentence, I contend, is abnormal because so few native speakers know how to use it, so they tend more and more to use the first or to mumble incoherently.
    – user21497
    Nov 6, 2012 at 9:32
  • @BillFranke: Sorry, that was a typo -:) But got seems to be commonly used too in the same context. Not sure why.
    – Noah
    Nov 6, 2012 at 9:50
  • [Sigh of relief]. Thank you for the info. I don't watch American TV anymore and rarely have time for movies, so I'm not up on all the latest linguistic developments that don't appear in the newspapers and blogs that I read online.
    – user21497
    Nov 6, 2012 at 9:55
  • Have got, as in "I've got", meaning simply 'have' was in my youth pretty generally distinguished from have gotten, the perfect construction. But in modal contexts, gotten seems to be collapsing into got - which may be regretted (if not downright deplored), but is probably inevitable. Nov 6, 2012 at 11:31

When the form which sounds right (1) is shown to be grammatically incorrect, avoid the issue by reconstructing the sentence.

Without the example sentences, I wouldn't have understood the text.

  • 2
    Recasting one's grammatically incorrect or syntactically clunky sentences is only one reasonable possibility, but it perpetuates ignorance unless coupled with an admonition to learn the correct grammar and how to craft better sentences.
    – user21497
    Nov 6, 2012 at 9:24
  • Since subjunctive grammar is dying anyway, and I, for one, don't really want to keep it alive on a respirator, evasion may be the best solution, here. May 2, 2014 at 4:30

The difference is the same as that between "If I was not given the samples" vs "If I were not given the samples". The latter is more correct, but it sounds out-of-date. Traditionally, this is a condition contrary to fact, and requires the subjunctive.

The subjunctive in English generally looks 'past-like' when it is present. "Were I not here, you would leave" is a statement about what would be going on NOW, but it looks past. Similarly this form looks past-perfect when it is simply past. So the "hadn't had" construction is the right version here.

OTOH, everyone universally despises having a whole set of conjugation rules that are so seldom used. So the subjunctive is totally optional except in the most formal of writing.

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