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I asked this question at English Language and Usage sites before but I was suggested to ask this question here instead.

I'm learning about conditional sentences now. This is the site that I'm using for reference. http://www.ef.com/english-resources/english-grammar/conditional/

I got confused on how do I write the type 2 conditional sentences if I use the past tense since the beginning. For example, first, I have this example of the zero conditional sentence.

If I stick my hands on the fire, I will get burn.

Then, if we use the past tense since the beginning, for example, in the narrative story when we tell about something from the past, it'll be like this, won't it?

If I stuck my hands on fire, I would get burn.

But then, what about the type 2 conditional sentences? This is where I got confused. For example.

If I were him, I wouldn't buy that car.

Should we let it as it is or should we change it if we use simple past tense from the beginning?

  • That is a correct type 2 conditional sentence, however, if you want you could instead match it with your other sentences: "If he stuck his hand in the fire, he would get burned." Notice the ed attached to the end of the word burn. In all of the sentence examples, the past tense form of the word burn should be used. "Burned instead of burn." – DoWhileNot Oct 20 '17 at 14:43
  • @DoWhileNot Thanks! Somehow I forgot about that. But maybe I worded my question wrong because I don't think my question got answered. Long question short, my question is, "What tenses should I use for conditional sentences (all types) in a text written in past tense?" I'm sorry and thank you so much! – Aragaki Aya Oct 20 '17 at 17:56
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The first example is of the first conditional (not the zero conditional as you labelled it) - a present tense verb in the subordinate clause (the protasis, the if clause) with a future form in the main clause (the apodosis, the result of the condition):

If I stick my hands in the fire, I will get burned.

The next example is of the second conditional - a past tense verb in the subordinate clause and a conditional form (would plus infinitive) in the main clause:

If I stuck my hands in the fire, I would get burned.

This is also the second conditional:

If I were him, I wouldn't buy that car.

The past-tense forms used in second conditionals don't represent actual past time. They represent unreal or hypothetical conditions. The hypothetical conditions are, however, imagined as taking place now or in the future, not in the past:

If I won the lottery, I would go on a cruise.

If I fell seriously ill, I would need to go to hospital.

If you were actually writing about a past hypothetical, you wouldn't use the second conditional. Instead you would use the third conditional, which consists of the past perfect in the subordinate clause, followed by the conditional perfect (would have plus a past participle) in the main clause:

If I had stuck my hands in the fire, I would have got (or would have gotten) burned. (BrE prefers "got" here, AmE "gotten".)

If I had been him, I wouldn't have bought that car.

If I had won the lottery, I would have gone on a cruise.

If I had fallen seriously ill, I would have needed to go to hospital. (BrE prefers "hospital" here, AmE "the hospital".)

However, the nature of the unreal condition expressed by "if I were him" is that if you had been him at the time, you would still be him now. Hence in this case it is equally acceptable to retain the simple past in the if clause - but the main clause must still be in the conditional perfect, giving you a so-called "mixed" conditional:

If I were him, I wouldn't have bought that car.

Past narrative. You asked about how we would refer to conditionals in a story narrated in the past, with reference to this passage:

He had wanted to enjoy some drinks with Yarei and report on the events at the monastery, but if he didn't sell the furs that were piled high in his wagon bed, he wouldn't be able to pay for goods purchased elsewhere when the bills came due.

You're right. We have to account for four situations:

  • (1) talking in the present about a present/future possible/potential condition (the first conditional)
  • (2) talking in the present about a present/future unreal/hypothetical condition (the second conditional)
  • (3) talking in the present or past about a past unreal condition (the third conditional)
  • (4) talking in the past about a real/potential condition, i.e. the past-narrative equivalent of (1).

For the fourth case, we again use the second conditional.

Imagine that the story was being narrated in the present tense:

He wanted to enjoy some drinks with Yarei and report on the events at the monastery, but if he doesn't sell the furs that are piled high in his wagon bed, he won't be able to pay for goods purchased elsewhere when the bills come due.

Backshifted for the past-tense narrative, this becomes:

He had wanted to enjoy some drinks with Yarei and report on the events at the monastery, but if he didn't sell the furs that were piled high in his wagon bed, he wouldn't be able to pay for goods purchased elsewhere when the bills came due.

The condition was a first conditional at the time when the man had been making his decisions and facing his dilemma about fur sales. When the story is told in the past tense, the present shifts to the past, the present perfect to the past perfect, and the future to the conditional (or future-in-the-past, which is the same form: would).

Note also these remarks from englishgrammar.org (where the "was" is used to illustrate the fact that when a first conditional is backshifted to a past-time account of a real condition, "was" is correct rather than "were"):

If I was in a hurry, I usually skipped my breakfast.

If she was angry, she would shut herself up in her room.

  • Thanks for the answer. What about stories that are written in past tense? I have this example from a novel. "He had wanted to enjoy some drinks with Yarei and report on the events at the monastery, but if he didn't sell the furs that were piled high in his wagon bed, he wouldn't be able to pay for goods purchased elsewhere when the bills came due. ..." What type of conditional is that? The main clause isn't in the perfect conditional so I'm confused. – Aragaki Aya Oct 21 '17 at 16:24
  • By the rules, that's second conditional but we don't use second conditional for past time. That also isn't third or mixed conditional because the main clause isn't in perfect conditional. – Aragaki Aya Oct 21 '17 at 16:28
  • I hadn't thought of that when I wrote my original answer. I've edited my answer to answer your point, as my answer would have been too long a comment. Whether you call this the second conditional or not, I'm not sure (the page I've cited in my response implies that it could be called that) - but I agree that it has the same form as the second conditional. It's a time-shifted version of the first conditional. If you read my revised answer, hopefully it'll be a bit clearer. – rjpond Oct 21 '17 at 17:20

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