# Can second conditional express a past possibility?

The verse "If I had the blueprint or the brain" indicates:

a) a current ability
b) a future intention
c) a past ability
d) a past possibility
e) a past action

The answer is "d", according to a recent admission test. In Practical English Usage, Michael Swan says that "we use special structures with if when we are talking about unreal situations - things that will probably not happen, situations that are untrue or imaginary, and similar ideas. In these cases, we use past tenses and would to "distance" our language from reality." Even if we consider the main clause ("I would build an aeroplane"), I cannot see a past possibility in this fragment. In my opinion, none of the answers is correct. Am I right?

• I agree with you. "If I had had X I would have done Y" (past possibility) or "If I had X I would do Y" (hypothetical). Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 17:14
• indicates: a condition contrary to fact. Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 18:03
• If that is the exact, complete question on an admission test, it's a bad question, and there's nothing in it to learn about English. The given text only gives a condition, not any ability, intention, possibility or action, past, present or future.
– gotube
Commented Nov 2, 2023 at 6:39
• Please cite the source, and please quote the entire sentence this clause comes from. You may think it's irrelevant and you want to focus on the if-clause but it may give very important clues. Commented Nov 2, 2023 at 11:04
• Out of curiosity what is meant by the brain, is it another word for blueprint? In people we'd usually say "If I'd had the brains, I'd have studied engineering instead of Literature” Commented Nov 2, 2023 at 11:06

No. You use the the second conditional to talk about present or future possibilities that are either impossible or probably not going to be true. You use the third conditional to talk about something from the past that did not, or could not happen.

Second conditional uses the past simple followed by 'would' and the infinitive. Because it uses the infinitive it cannot express a past possibility, although the condition on which the future possibility hangs may itself involve the past.

Your quote is not a complete example - it is only the condition.

A complete example would be:

• If I had paid more attention at school I could get a better job.

The condition is something from the past, but the possibility that hangs on it is something you could have done now or in the future.

The third conditional uses the past tense and not the infinitive. Both the condition and the event are in the past:

• If I had had the opportunity I would have gone to college.

Acutally, the situation is not that straightforward: it depends on whether the condition is time-bound or perpetual.

TIME-BOUND EXAMPLES

If I had the money, I would take a vacation to some place warm this coming winter.

If I had had the money at the time, I would have gone to Tahiti before I got married and we had kids.

INNATE "PERPETUAL" CONDITION EXAMPLES

If he had a brain, he would sell that car and buy something reliable.

If he had a brain, he would not have bought that car in the first place.

It is not truly idiomatic to say "If he had had a brain..." although it is grammatical.

Your example is tricky in that it is an either/or condition, one of which is a time-bound condition, "the blueprint", the other, "a brain", a perpetual condition. It's a bad question in that regard.

P.S. Further on the "innate" qualities. To my AmE, they call for an irrealis construction with were. If you had not been so pale-skinned, you wouldn't have gotten such a bad sunburn. That sounds unidiomatic to me, though I recognize it as grammatical; I'd want to use were there: If you weren't so pale-skinned, you wouldn't have gotten such a bad sunburn. Same with If I'd been you, I wouldn't have bought that car. The tense had been sounds wooden and I'd use were there.

• I'd appreciate knowing whether the downvote came from a BrE or an AmE speaker (or other) and the reason. Commented Nov 2, 2023 at 17:02