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If he had time, he always called in to see us.

The structure of this sentence is making me puzzled. I mean why it could not have been like this- "If he had time, he would have called in to see us."

It is true that it might be the past habit of the person of always calling in whenever he got time, but, does it make sense in conditional sentences like this? If yes, then could you make me understand how?

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  • It might help if you understand If there as effectively equivalent to When[ever]. Nov 28, 2019 at 16:35
  • But is it even the convention? or should i take that IF as WHEN only because it makes more sense? Nov 28, 2019 at 16:39
  • To be honest, I'm having trouble understanding what possible different meanings could apply with your exact context. We know that he always called in to see us isn't 100% true - it's subject to the precondition of him having time to do so. But for me as a competent native speaker, it makes no difference at all whether that restriction is expressed using If or When. There's obviously a difference in other contexts though - I'll do it if I have time (but maybe never) is a much weaker commitment than I'll do it when I have time (eventually, for sure). Nov 28, 2019 at 16:55
  • Note that your alternative If he had time, he would have called in to see us would normally mean something completely different. The implication there is that he never called (because he never had time). Nov 28, 2019 at 16:58
  • Do native speakers really speak sentences like this? Nov 28, 2019 at 17:01

3 Answers 3

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Your rewrite:

If he had time, he would have called in to see us.

This implies a hypothetical, that he "would have" called in, which suggests that he in fact didn't call in, and also suggests that this was because he didn't have time.

It would more correctly be written as:

If he'd had time, he would have called in to see us.

"He'd" meaning "he had".

If he had time, he always called in to see us.

This states that he "always called in", meaning that he in fact did call in, and also tells us that this was only the case when he had time (if he didn't have time, he didn't call in, but if he did have time, he [always] called in).

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You're correct, the sentence is awkward because of mixing conditional and non-conditional modes. It's not "wrong" however. We'd probably not think it sounded strange and understand it to mean:

When he had time, he always called in to see us.

which is the natural way of saying "in the past, whenever he had the time to do so, he did actually call in to see us." This refers to multiple occasions, and the subject did actually "call in" - more than once. We could instead say:

If he had time, he would have called in to see us.

which means in some unspecified time frame in the past, he did not "call in" but would have if he had the time to do so.

If there was just a single instance that he "called in", you could say either of:

When he had the time, he called in to see us.
He had the time to call in once.

The first one could mean he "called in" a single time, or many times. The second one explicitly states that it was just one time.

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    I don't agree the sentence is awkward. It's normal everyday English. Nov 28, 2019 at 17:16
  • I said it wasn't strange or odd-sounding conversationally. But it is awkward or casual grammar. An English teacher might deduct a mark, style guides might recommend against it, and you'd want to use a different construction in formal communication. Avoid mixed modes if possible.
    – BadZen
    Nov 29, 2019 at 17:12
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This sentence could be rewritten differently, to understand its meaning. This particular case could also be understood as "Each moment he had time, he always called in to see us.", or something else that would suits you more.

Now, regarding conditional sentence, the only way to make it work is to add "would" before the verb, like you did above. There aren't supposed to be other manners to express a condition, than the addition of a "would" before the verb("might" being an exception). Many cases in English work this way, such as expressing regrets.

"If only he had time, he would always call in to see us", is one example among others.

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  • Your final example doesn't strike me as something native speakers would say. If only strongly implies a hypothetical situation that never happened, but always strongly implies it did (often, in fact). Nov 28, 2019 at 17:05

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