I was doing an exercise. I completed the sentence as following.

If you were my child, I would have demanded that such an irresponsible teacher be fired.

But the answer given in the book is following.

If you had been my child, I would have demanded that such an irresponsible teacher be fired.

I am not sure if my answer is wrong. The latter sounds better and I can see the relative merit of it.

  • 2
    So what's your question? Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 18:56
  • 2
    @coleopterist 'I am not sure if my answer is wrong' .
    – Dilawar
    Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 19:26

4 Answers 4


Your answer was wrong. Would have demanded in the main clause requires had + past participle in the 'if' clause. The construction is sometimes known to foreign learners as the third conditional.

  • 3
    Is that really true? I don't know the "rules of grammar" involved here, but it seems to me you can validly say, for example, "If it were my house, I'd have redecorated last year". In that case, clearly it wasn't your house then, and it still isn't now. Whereas "If it had been my house..." could reasonably be said even if you now own it, having bought it since last year. Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 20:48
  • 2
    There are certainly more patterns of conditional sentences than those taught to intermediate foreign learners, but an exercise of the kind the OP was doing would have been designed to elicit the verb forms associated with the third conditional, which would probably have been presented in the course book or class. Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 20:59
  • It all really depends on what we mean by "wrong" here. If we mean the answer that won't be accepted because there's another one that's more obviously right, then that's one thing. But there's also the matter of what native speakers actually say (which I know a bit about), and what the rules of grammar allow (which I freely admit I know less about! :) Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 21:17
  • 1
    I agree with @FumbleFingers. If you write exercises designed to elicit the verb forms associated with the third conditional, you shouldn't use one of the relatively rare examples where native English speakers would not always use the third conditional. I certainly consider this to be one of these exceptions (although FumbleFingers' exception is even better). Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 21:34
  • What @Peter Shor said. If the alternative "postulates" had been "If I were there" and "If I had been there", there'd have been far less "wiggle room" for "unwanted, but not inherently unacceptable" answers. Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 22:27

I think the book is wrong. Superficially, #1 seems to "mix tenses", but I'm not going to claim that 1710 written instances of "if it were me I would have..." in Google Books are all "ungrammatical".

You can explicitly place your "subjunctive postulate" in the past (you were my child, it was me) to agree with a following clause saying what might have happened in that case, but I don't see that any such agreement is necessary. I personally have no problem with any of...

"If it were my house, I'd have redecorated last year"

"If it had been my house, I'd have redecorated last year" (where you might actually own it now)

"If it were my house, I'd sell it next year"

"If it had been my house since 1970, I'd sell it next year"

If you want to get top marks in an exam, #2 is the obvious choice. But that doesn't mean native speakers don't habitually (and validly, imho) combine tenses in such constructions.

EDIT: I also think the choice of example in OP's book is potentially confusing, because the "contrafactual postulate" (that you are/were my child) is "temporally independent" (if it wasn't true in the past, it can't be true now either). People wouldn't normally say, for example,...

If there had been a God, he wouldn't have drowned the last unicorns in the Flood.

...because that admits of the awkward possibility that there wasn't a God then, but there is now.

  • 1
    Quite apart from If it were I rather than me, don't you think OPs example was carefully chosen (by the author) to avoid the possibility that the postulate was true in the past but not now? If you were my child, I would demand.. or If you had been mine, I would have... are both fine; but the fact that semantically they are interchangeable does not by itself mean you can take half of each, Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 22:11
  • @TimLymington: If I understand you aright, then - no, I don't think it was a good idea to choose a postulate that can't change over time. If you cast the (negated) postulate in the past, this always admits of the possibility it might be true now. That's why I specifically chose my "God" example - logically we're forced to interpret the postulate there as implying "If there is a God, and He was active in the past". All of which strikes me as "awkward". Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 22:23
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth: 'If it were up to me' has always been correct, but 'if it were me' is still incorrect in certain situations, of which I would say one is an English test. Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 23:16
  • 1
    This response seems slightly incoherent to me. All understandable native speakers are "competent speakers"; that doesn't mean what they say is always idiomatic English to all other native speakers. Spoken & formal written (standardized test) English are two sides of one coin. Register & mode (oral/written) are part of usage. If you think the OP's Q is off topic for ELU, why answer? EFL students must learn both spoken & test English. They get kicked around a lot here. What's the good of hostility? It's already too unfriendly for them here. It helps no one despite its letting one vent.
    – user21497
    Commented Nov 16, 2012 at 14:41
  • 2
    @FumbleFingers: we have disagreed before about the purpose of ELU: I certainly don't think we are here simply to tell inquirers what constructions are currently popular. But answers should relate to the question: OP does not ask what construction native speakers use informally: he asks whether his answer was "wrong", so in a sense he does need to know how to pass. Commented Nov 16, 2012 at 22:15

I have a feeling that as far as conditionals are considered, an intermediate grammar test (where you are expected to follow certain patterns), what a native spreaker might automatically say without thinking (see below), and what's logical and expressing what you want to stress out are three different things.

Honestly, although I won't deny that 'If you had been my child' is grammatically correct, to me it sounds a little weird from the logical point of view as it kind of implies that you may have become my child since.

In my opinion, all the following examples are gramatically correct but they all have different meanings (in terms of what times they refer to):

  • If I had bought the house, I would have had to move. (I didn't buy it and didn't have to move; both past.)
  • If I had bought the house, I'd sell it (now. I didn't buy the house so I can't sell it; past, present.)
  • If I were a girl, I would have bought the house. (I'm not a girl, never have been and will (most likely) never be. And it was not a good idea for boys to buy that house. It doesn't say anything about whether it is a good idea for a boy to buy that house now; I believe I could even say 'If I were richer, I would have bought the house.' with the meaning: not only wasn't I rich then but am not rich even now; present, past.)
  • If I bought the house, I would have to move. (I'm considering this acquisition but am not sure whether it is a good idea because I don't like to move; present, present.)

This is at least how I understand conditionals. On the one hand I'm not a native speaker, on the other hand I have quite a few (US) friends who, without blinking an eye, say "If I would have bought the house..." and insist that it is grammatically correct.

  • The last one is on shaky ground.
    – tchrist
    Commented Nov 16, 2012 at 14:08
  • @tchrist - what's shaky about it?
    – Malis
    Commented Nov 16, 2012 at 17:08
  • 1
    Nothing; I misread.
    – tchrist
    Commented Nov 16, 2012 at 17:12

I think your answer is not grammatically incorrect, and that FumbleFingers intuition is sound. I analyze it this way:

The standard paradigm for what has been called here the "third conditional" is a counterfactual statement about two past events:

"If I had studied, I would have passed the test."

That paradigm can be extended to a past state of affairs that affected a past event:

"If I had been taller, I could have ridden the roller-coaster."

The excercise you give, however, has two twists to it, in that the conditional clause poses a counterfactual about an on-going state of affairs beginning in the past but extending to the present, and does it in the second person. This makes the application of rules about the sequence of tenses very ambiguous, and it becomes less natural to follow the usual rule for a third conditional. To see this, imagine addressing your neighbor's child, who is not as good a pianist as your child, as follows: "If you were my child, I would have gotten you a better piano teacher." It would be somewhat unnatural to say instead: "If you had been my child, I would have gotten you [etc]," because fixing the counterfctual in the past could be taken to suggest that the counterfactual subsequently stopped being a counterfactual. Thinking about it, I think I could be persuaded with very little effort that your answer is actually better.

That being said, I agree with most of the other comments here that for purposes of a standardized educational exercise, the book answer would be the conventional one.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.