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"If I was mean to you I'm sorry"

This is a perfectly understandable and natural sentence to my mind.

But can you tell me what kind of conditional we're dealing with here? And also: would British English prefer "have been" instead of "was"?

One more: Is it possible to have this sentence:

"If I had been mean before the party then I'm sorry".

Here the speaker wants use the past perfect construction. He might want to do that if he wished to defend himself by restricting his meanness to prior to the party, thus, e.g. opposing the other person's claim that he had been mean the entire day, including the party.

Edit: Indeed, I had forgotten about non-contingent "ifs", thanks for pointing to this phenomenon. I think, after reading the responses, more strongly that there is no room for the "had been" case in English, unless aiming for some sort of markedness.

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    Please forget whatever you think you know about have been/was. Most of what is said re BrE and AmE about the present perfect and simple past is simply not true.
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 16:20
  • The the past perfect construction in your second example is utterly pointless (it can never make any difference to the meaning in the exact context), so native speakers wouldn't normally use it. But precisely because native speakers wouldn't normally use it, if we heard it from someone who we thought was a native speaker, we'd assume he chose the "non-standard" verb tense for a reason. The first reason that comes to mind for me is that because Past Perfect pushes the allusion further into the past, the speaker is (deliberately or subconsciously) distancing himself from his past action... Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 17:05
  • ...consequently, if you said that to me (and I didn't realize that you weren't a native Anglophone, so more accurately: If you wrote that to me...), I'd be tempted to assume you weren't really sorry at all (because you'd be implying it was long ago and thus irrelevant to the current situation). That's a good example of how the tendency of non-native Anglophones to overuse Past Perfect can have potentially undesirable implications. Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 17:09
  • @FumbleFingers That entire line of reasoning seems fallacious to me. I wasn't mean before the party but if I'd been mean at some other point, I'm sorry. A perfectly reasonable sentence.
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 18:10

3 Answers 3

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I don't think it fits into the pattern of conditionals that are taught to EFL students (and are pretty well unknown outside the EFL world: I used to read a lot of linguistics, and I had never heard of them until I started frequenting this site),

This is because it's not a true conditional: it doesn't mean "If A is/was/will be/might be true then B is/was/will be/would be true". My being sorry does not follow as a logical or material consequence of my being mean to you: the meaning is more like "I didn't think I was being mean to you, but I'm sorry".

British usage would say was if the speaker was referring to a particular occasion, but probably prefer have been if it's over a period (especially if the speaker doesn't actually know how they are supposed to have been mean, and so cannot attach it to any particular occasion).

If I'd been mean to you before the party is certainly possible, but would only be used if there were some reason to set the temporal focus at the time of the party. An example might be if they had an argument at the party. But in your suggested scenario, there's no reason to use had been, and I would expect was.

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  • This is not only relevant in British English.
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 16:18
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    I find it interesting that even with your solid background in linguistics, you weren't familiar with these "numbered conditionals" that keep turning up on ELL. John Lawler rarely misses a chance to comment that the (inevitably, finite) list of "conditional types" taught to nns is invariably pointless, misleading, and incomplete. And imho this particular context is extremely subtle, because most of us wouldn't even understand the if as directly modifying an implied I was rude. It's actually being used to modify an implied You [erroneously] thought I was being rude. Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 17:26
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    Exactly! But I think nearly all native speakers have far better control over their use of language than pedantic / prescriptive grammarians would have us believe. And I also think that all of us implement at least some extremely subtle choices without even being consciously aware of what we're doing. Many people are "a bit" selfish / self-justifying without being exactly "nasty and manipulative", and they might well not be consciously aware that their choice of phrasing gives away more than they intended. (So in some contexts, I'd almost say unwarranted Past Perfect is a "Freudian slip" :) Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 17:43
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    @FumbleFingers You claim it is a conditional, but there is no evidence of that. If you replace a term like if with a semantically equivalent synonym, it shows this is not a conditional. On the assumption he was late, he is sorry. If he was late, he is sorry. Same meaning and also no conditional. Colin says it does not fit the pattern taught to ELLers, and I say it isn't a conditional at all.
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 18:31
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    I already wrote "real conditionals" (whatever they are). Where I don't really know or care what the answer is. I'm not remotely interested in learning or teaching "conditionals" (numbered or not). My substantive point here is simply that I'm sorry if I was rude is very often a form of "weasel words" (implying I regret that you took offense, rather than ...that I offended you). Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 18:54
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I was mean to you yesterday.

I had been mean to you in the past but now am not mean to you or yesterday was not mean to you.

If I am being mean to you now, I don't like myself being that way.

the little word if has all these meanings, not all are associated with conditional sentences:

if in Merriam Webster a : in the event that
b : allowing that
c : on the assumption that
d : on condition that

"If I was mean to you, I'm sorry. Using any of the definitions above shows that if here is not a conditional sentence.

These are conditionals:
If I am mean to you, I'm sure you'll tell me to stop.
If I were [or was] mean to you, you would tell me to stop.
If I had been mean to you, you would have told me to stop.

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As is the case with much of English usage, the correctness of these examples is highly dependent upon the context in which they are used.

"If I was mean to you I'm sorry"

The "was" makes it sound like a specific incident.

"If I have been mean to you I'm sorry"

The "have been" makes it sound like it was an ongoing situation (which you now want to change).

"If I had been mean before the party then I'm sorry".

This sounds wrong.
The "had been" makes it sound like you are denying it, but the "then I'm sorry" doesn't naturally follow from that expression.
One would expect something more like "… then I wouldn't have …".

But generally none of them sound truly sincere with the "If I" there.

If you really were mean you would know it and say "I'm sorry I was mean to you." or "I'm sorry I have been mean to you.".
And if you don't think you were mean, you would say "I'm sorry if I appeared to be mean to you.", possibly followed by an explanation of why you think you might have appeared that way (e.g. "I had just heard that my uncle is dying, and most of what you said went in one ear and out the other. I wasn't deliberately ignoring you.)

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  • No, the party example is fine. Really.
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 16:21
  • @Lambie, whether it's "allowing that", "on the assumption that", or "on condition that", it is still too weak to be a real apology. An apology includes an admission of guilt, but these meanings all weasel around it. I'm not saying there's anything grammatically wrong with it. Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 16:44
  • Re The "had been" makes it sound like you are denying it - I think the implication isn't exactly "denial" - it's more that it pushes the action further into the past, and reduces its relevance to the present. Making the apology seem less sincere, because the "offense" is metaphorically pushed further away Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 17:13
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    To me, the "had been" is confusing. It sounds like the beginning of a thought like this one: If had been mean to you, then your reaction would have been understandable. In other words, it sounds like rudeness is simply a counterfactual, hypothetical consideration.
    – Chaim
    Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 19:58

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