If you weren't guilty, you wouldn't have gone on the run.

When I first read this sentence, I thought that it should have been written like the below one.

If you hadn't been guilty, you wouldn't have gone on the run.

This is because my understanding about the sentence structure of past unreal condition is like:

If ... past perfect ..., ... would have + past participle ...

If the two sentences are not interchangeable, then would you explain how different they are?

I have noticed a similar question raised at "If they were Vs If They had been", but it doesn't answer my question, so I put my own post this time.

1 Answer 1


With a hypothetical if, the verb form depends upon the verb. For be in the present tense, we use the subjunctive form were:

If I were you, I wouldn't do that.

For all other verbs and tenses, we backshift the tense- the same as for reported speech:

If I become rich, I will buy a big house - possible future
I I became rich, I would buy a big house - hypothetical future

So, in your sentence, if you regard guilt as an eternal truth, you would use present tense "You are not guilty": convert that to a hypothetical if, and you get "If you were not guilty".

If you regard guilt as something that existed only in the past "You were not guilty", for a hypothetical version, you would backshift it: "if you had not been guilty".

  • Thanks. "For be in the present tense, we use the subjunctive form were" I think this is true only when we talk about present unreal situations, but my question is about the sentence "If you weren't guilty, you wouldn't have gone on the run." which is about a past unreal situation". All English grammar books that I have ever read explain something like, "To talk about past situations that did not happen, we use a past perfect tense (had + past participle) in the If clause, and would have + past participle in the other part of the sentense."
    – Takashi
    Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 21:39
  • @Takashi it is true that going on the run is fixed in the past but, as I explained, guilt is normally regarded as an eternal truth (you were guilty then, you are still guilty now, you will be guilty for ever) and for eternal truths we use present simple. If, however, you choose to look at guilt as something temporary (but typically English speakers don't) then it can be expressed as had + past participle.
    – JavaLatte
    Commented Aug 5, 2020 at 5:48
  • Sorry about my lack of attention. Somehow your explanation about eternal truth or temporary things slipped out of my mind. I now understand what you mean. Thanks a lot.
    – Takashi
    Commented Aug 5, 2020 at 6:12

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