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When we use when or if or any other subordinating conjunctions (unless, because, and once, etc) to talk about a thing a non-specific person might have done in the past, do we use past tense?

Example 1: (when writing an article and referring to the reader's past.)

(1) If you had an unhappy childhood, you are more protective of your kids.

(2) When you had an unhappy childhood, you are more protective of your kids.

(3) Unless you had a fortunate childhood, you are likely to be more protective of your kids.

(4) If you are a beginner, your muscles can feel sore because you started lifting weights not long ago.

Example 2: (when talking about a non-specific person's past)

(1) If a person had an unhappy childhood, he/she is more protective of his/her kids.

(2) When a person had an unhappy childhood, he/she is more protective of his/her kids.

(3) Unless a person had a fortunate childhood, he/she is likely to be more protective of his/her kids.

(4) If a person is a beginner, his/her muscles can feel sore because he/she started lifting weights not long ago.

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  • This non-specific thing is completely irrelevant...Also, your examples could have just as easily been about things, not a person....
    – Lambie
    Commented May 23, 2020 at 18:01
  • Also, if you are referring to past actions, of course, you use the past tense.....How can you use a present tense to refer to the past?? Unless you use historical present, a literary thing.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 23, 2020 at 18:18

2 Answers 2

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There are a few things that need to be mentioned here.

First of all, the tense doesn't depend on whether you're referring to a specific person/entity or a "non-specific" person/entity. The only difference is that the verb would inflect (i.e. "you eat" would become "he eats"). For example:

If I turn on the lights, I will waste electricity.

If you turn on the lights, you will waste electricity.

If a person turns on the lights, they will waste electricity.

If ____________ turn/turns on the lights, __________ will waste electricity.

Therefore, if you want to describe past actions, you can use a past tense, regardless of the person/entity.


Secondly, the tenses you're combining in your sentences make them a bit problematic.

When you're making conditional sentences with the past simple tense they should be constructed as follows:

If [past simple], [would + infinitive].

If I had five dollars, I would buy a sandwich.

This means your sentences with "if" should state

If you had an unhappy childhood, you would be more protective of your kids.

If a person had an unhappy childhood, they would be more protective of their kids.

In your sentences using "when," the conjunction has the same sense as "if" when used in a "zero conditional" sentence:

When you turn (present) on a television, it makes (present) noise.

If you turn on a television, it makes noise. ("zero conditional")

This means your sentences with "when" should state

When you have an unhappy childhood, you are more protective of your kids.

When a person has an unhappy childhood, they are more protective of their kids.

Sentences (3) and (4) in both cases seem fine to me otherwise.

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  • Thank you for your answer. I happened to recall that the word "because" can do the job like my examples: because a person [did] something in the past, that person [is] more something now. So you mean "because" and "once" and some subordinating conjunctions don't have to conform to the rule of sequence of tense and "when" and "if" have to conform to the rule of sequence of tense? Can we say: if/when a person [did] something in the past, that person [is] more something now?
    – vincentlin
    Commented May 24, 2020 at 4:51
  • @vincentlin I can't find any rule that says that all subordinating conjunctions have to follow a certain rule regarding tense. That being said, the tenses you use depend on the sense of the subordinating conjunction. Your sentences with "if" are conditional sentences, and thus must follow tense rules of conditional sentences. Your sentences with "when" are examples of factual conditional sentences (also called "zero conditional" sentences), which strictly use the present tense. (1/2)
    – Kman3
    Commented May 24, 2020 at 17:28
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    Your example conjunctions also require you to analyse the sense behind them. You can definitely say "I sing because I like it" and "We take the bus to work because my husband crashed the car," but you can't say "I talked to Paul because I will be curious about his family" because the combination of tenses doesn't make sense. Since "once" means "as soon as," you'd also have to watch the tenses. You can say "Once he left, everyone smiled" and "Once you sing, I will cry" but you can't say "Once she ate, everyone will eat." (2/2)
    – Kman3
    Commented May 24, 2020 at 17:39
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Tense depends on the time of the action of the verb, NOT on whether the subject is specific or non-specific.

Subject : You (specific) :

Zero conditional : If you have an unhappy childhood, you are more protective of your kids.

Conditional type 1 : If you have an unhappy childhood, you will be more protective of your kids.

Conditional type 2 : If you had an unhappy childhood, you would be more protective of your kids.

Conditional type 3 : If you had had an unhappy childhood, you would have been more protective of your kids.


Subject : a person (non-specific):

Zero conditional : If a person has an unhappy childhood, he/she is more protective of his/her kids.

Conditional type 1 : If a person has an unhappy childhood, he/she will be more protective of his/her kids.

Conditional type 2 : If a person had an unhappy childhood, he/she would be more protective of his/her kids.

Conditional type 3 : If a person had had an unhappy childhood, he/she would have been more protective of his/her kids.


Note : The same thing happens with unless or when-clause :

e.g., Zero conditional :

When you have an unhappy childhood, you are more protective of your kids.

When a person has an unhappy childhood, they are more protective of their kids.

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