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Consider:

If I met John, I would call my mom.

I know this sentence is a second conditional case. It relates to a hypothetical situation.

I don't know whether I could also understand it in this way: The context is, I am not sure whether I met him sometime last summer. But if I did meet him at that time, I would call my mom and tell her about him.

And if one day I find out I indeed met John, I will be sure that I called my mom immediatly after that encounter. This is just my habit. I might have met him, but I am not quite sure about that. My memory can't last that long. The only thing I am sure about is that whenever I meet him, I will call my mom immediately. This is the context.

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I think you mean a hypothetical situation. Do you mean you would call your mom now if you found out about meeting John, or do you mean you would have called her last summer, after meeting John? –  oerkelens Mar 20 at 14:38
    
The case is, I am not sure whether I met him sometime last summer, and also I am not sure whether I called my mom. –  Zhanlong Zheng Mar 20 at 14:40
    
This is possible. If I met John last summer, I will call my mom. It means If I find out I indeed met him, my mom will be the first to know this. But this is not the case in my question. –  Zhanlong Zheng Mar 20 at 14:45
    
I am not quite clear about what you are asking here. Please clarify your query. –  Adil Ali Mar 20 at 15:02
    
My question is that I don't know whether I could also understand it in this way. Is it possible to be explained as above given the context I described? –  Zhanlong Zheng Mar 20 at 15:05
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4 Answers 4

up vote 3 down vote accepted

This is exactly why the notion of '1st, 2nd, 3rd conditional' is so useless for anything except getting an initial familiarity with the forms. This sentence, as you conjecture, bears two entirely different meanings in different contexts:

  • It may be a non-past, unreal conditional:

    I don't follow football, but in the unlikely event that I ever met John Elway I would call my mother immediately: she's a huge fan of his.

  • It may be a past, real conditional:

    That summer, Mom didn't mind who I played with as long as she knew where I was; so whenever I met John I would always call my mother.

Your scenario—“I am not sure whether I met him sometime last summer. But if I did meet him at that time, I would call my mom and tell her about him.” requires a different construction in the consequence clause, and would probably employ a construction with do in the condition clause:

I don’t remember if I met John last summer; but if I did meet him, I would have called my mother.

The n-conditional model won’t help you with that: it waves the situation off as a ’mixed conditional’.

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Shouldn't it be ... whom I played with as long as...? –  Maulik V Mar 21 at 6:07
    
who is also acceptable, just a little informal. @Maulik V –  Zhanlong Zheng Mar 21 at 11:49
    
Looking back, I tend to think the last example should be like this: I don’t remember if I met John last summer; but if I did meet him, I will have called my mother. She's a huge fan of his. What do you think? @StoneyB –  Zhanlong Zheng Jun 30 at 13:04
    
@ZhanlongZheng That is possible but very unlikely. Epistemic will indicates certainty, and doesn't fit well with the uncertainty in your protasis. –  StoneyB Jun 30 at 13:36
    
ell.stackexchange.com/questions/13265/… Wouldn't [ii] be same as mine? @StoneyB –  Zhanlong Zheng Jun 30 at 13:46
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I believe you are referring to past tense with your question.

"If I met John, I would call my mom," is a possible situation in the future or hypothetical.

"If I had met John, I would have called my mom," is what you would say if you are talking about meeting John last Summer.

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I am talking about past. As I have said, I already knew this usage of hypothetical situation. I just thought about another possibility, given my context. –  Zhanlong Zheng Mar 20 at 15:11
    
It could also be, "If I met John, I would have called my mom." –  Adil Ali Mar 20 at 15:11
    
Nope, in your case, it should be "if I had met John". –  Zhanlong Zheng Mar 20 at 15:12
    
"If I met John, I would call my mom," is not proper for past tense. The reason is the use of "would call". That is a "going to" phrase. To make it past tense you need you to use "would have called". So, the context for this is not interchangeable between past and hypothetical statements without changing the tense of the sentence. –  iolympian Mar 20 at 15:13
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@Zhanlong: I think you are mistakenly assuming English tenses are far more "precise" than is really the case. There are many different ways of interpreting your example sentence, and even messing about with perfect aspects (had met, would have called) won't disambiguate much. The context would normally make it clear what you mean, but a contrived example sentence standing in isolation is a completely different ball game. –  FumbleFingers Mar 20 at 16:45
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Let's see:

  • You may, or may not, have met John last summer.
  • After meeting John, the thing you would surely do is call your mother.

Then you can say:

If I met John last summer, I would have called my mother.

Now, to find out whether you met John, you can ask your mother if you called her. :)

Your original sentence, however, cannot be interpreted that way.

The only possibility would be to read it as

If I met John last summer (and I somehow remembered that now), I would call my mother (now, immediately - or in the very near future, right after remembering whether I met him).

That is, however, such a far-fetched interpretation, that is is highly unlikely that anyone would ever read the sentence like that.

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If i say it in your way, then it is not about a hypothetical situation. If so, why is "would have called" used? I think that it can be only used in the main clause to indicate the hypothetical consequence. But in my case, It was possible that I called my mom. I just don't quite remember now. @oerkelens –  Zhanlong Zheng Mar 20 at 15:48
    
I wanted to stay as close as possible to your original :) To fully explain the situation without misunderstandings, one would say something like "If I did actually meet John last summer, I'm sure I would have called my mom. Maybe I should check with her." –  oerkelens Mar 20 at 15:52
    
Then, what is the usage of "would have" here? I have never seen it being used like that. –  Zhanlong Zheng Mar 20 at 15:54
    
It simply indicates that it might or might not have happened. If I say "I called my mom", it is a fact. I do not know if I called her or not. If I say "I would call her", I is not referring to anything in the past. (It could, in a sentence like "When I was a kid, every time I saw John, I would call my mom.") –  oerkelens Mar 20 at 16:08
    
This is never examined in any grammar book i have read. I don't think "would have" here is interchangeable with "might have". Right? I know exactly how each of what you have listed above stands for different situation. But this "would have" comes out of nowhere. I wonder how "would have" match my original context. Why choose it, although obviously other alternatives do not fit. Plz help me! @oerkelens –  Zhanlong Zheng Mar 20 at 16:23
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If I met John, I would call my mom.

You say you are not sure whether you met him in the summer. So here are the possibilities: A)You met John. So you called your mom. B)You did not meet John. So you didn't call your mom either.

But then, you did not mention anything about when you would call your mom. So if get to know, that did meet him, I would call my mom up then.

But with your interpretation there are three 'catches' : 1) The time when you would call your mom isn't mentioned, so your assumption is wrong. You may or may not call her up immediately. 2) There is no way to be sure that you would have immediately called up your mom, right after you met John (from 1) 3)A reference to the past requires the sentence to be in the form : If I had [past participle(x)], then I would have [past participle(y)]. So your sentence actually refers to the future.

From these catches, we can conclude that your interpretation is wrong

Note : See English Conditional Sentences

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I have updated my question. Now you can know when. –  Zhanlong Zheng Mar 20 at 15:41
    
But the original statement doesn't say that. Therefore, your assumption may be false. –  Adil Ali Mar 20 at 16:15
    
OK, what should I say in order to express that meaning? –  Zhanlong Zheng Mar 20 at 16:25
    
Change the original sentence. Simple. –  Adil Ali Mar 20 at 16:27
    
I know, but how? –  Zhanlong Zheng Mar 20 at 16:28
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