I read this sentence today:

If I were five years old again, I would sleep in every Saturday while I still had the chance!

I am confused why is had used in the last part. When the first part is referring to a hypothetical present/future then how can the last part be in past tense.

The answer I received from a native speaker is that :

in type 2 and type 3 conditional sentences, a subordinate clause within the protasis or apodosis goes in the past (sometimes past perfect) tense.

Is this true? If yes, where can I find this information ?

These are very advanced grammar concepts for me and any resource suggestion can be very helpful for me.


Note that:

  • "Would" is morphologically past tense and acts as the past tense of "will", and is used (among other things) for the future-in-the-past
  • In a type 2 conditional, the verb in the protasis (the "if" clause) is also past tense (even irrealis "were" was traditionally called "past subjunctive"), even though it doesn't refer to the past: it represents an unreal or remote condition rather than the past
  • A type 2 conditional can be read as a backshifted (into the past) type 1 conditional, even though it refers to an unreal present/future, not to the past.

To take the last point, since I think that is the most directly relevant to your question, picture someone saying "If I go there tomorrow, I will enjoy myself as much as I can and until I get too tired to continue" - in the second conditional this becomes "If I went there tomorrow, I would enjoy myself as much as I could and until I got too tired to continue".

Imagine that a magic spell is cast and someone finds that he is five years old. Assuming his powers of thought and speech are still intact, he might exclaim: "I'm five years old again - I'll sleep in every Saturday while I still have the chance!".

Backshifted, this becomes: "I was five years old again - I would sleep in every Saturday while I still had the chance". Hence, "have" becomes "had", and in the conditional "If I were five years old again, I would sleep in every Saturday while I still had the chance", the past tense is used in the subordinate "while" clause.

Imagine that someone becomes rich and is thinking: "I'm rich - I'll buy things every week until I run out of money". A stupid thought, but just an example.

Backshifted (as in reported speech or a later account of the person's thoughts), it becomes "I was rich. I would buy things every week until I ran out of money".

Similarly then in a second conditional it is "If I were rich, I would buy things every week until I ran out of money" - with a past tense in the subordinate "until" clause.

  • @rjpond...Are my examples correct then? First Conditional :If the sun comes out tomorrow, we will play until we get tired. a. If the sun were to come out, we would play until we got tired. b. If the sun came out, we would play until we got tired. – Sudhir Sharma Oct 9 '20 at 14:50
  • @SudhirSharma Yes, your examples are all correct. – rjpond Oct 9 '20 at 14:54
  • @rjpond..Can this be considered as present subjunctive form of 'to have'. If the condition is hypothetical, then result has also not happened and it is also hypothetical. Thats why I think it( had in my example) is irrealis form of verb. Am I correct, Sir? – Sudhir Sharma Oct 9 '20 at 16:33
  • I understand your point, but that doesn't seem to be the case grammatically, because if we replaced "...until we got tired" with "...until I was tired", it would always be "was" there (in the 1st or 3rd person singular), never "were". Similarly, if we said "...while I was still able to" (instead of "...while I still had the chance"), it would again have to be "was", not "were". – rjpond Oct 9 '20 at 16:52
  • 1
    Thanks a lot. I will keep it to this, only if clause can use irrealis form of verb and other clauses must use simple forms of verb. – Sudhir Sharma Oct 9 '20 at 17:25

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.