I did make an effort to eat for the entire week beforehand, trying desperately to put on a pound or two before Thanksgiving Day, but my efforts were in vain. If I ate anything, most of it came right back up as usual. Truthfully, there was no reason I should have still been alive. When at last Thanksgiving came, Becca did her best to make me presentable.

-Thief of Life: The Chronicles of Daniela-Book Three-Torn

The imagined and projected guilt of being responsible for foetal alcohol syndrome in my unborn (and, as it turned out month after month after month, un-conceived) child was more than I could have coped with. I even felt guilty if I ate blue cheese in the second half of my cycle – just on the off chance that I was carrying a tiny dot of a human being, the beginning of a baby in my womb who might have had an adverse reaction to the unpasteurized dairy product.

-Pink for a Girl

I saw nothing after that but that young body in its garments and imagined it without the garments.

If I ate that day I have no recollection of it. If I conducted meetings I have no memory of them.

-I Diced With God: The Life of Henry VIII As Seen By His Majesty

In these consequence clauses, the authors employed present or past simple tense.

I would rephrasing them "If I ate anything, most of it would come right back up as usual", "I would even feel guilty if I ate blue cheese.." or "If I ate that day I would have no recollection of it."

Is the if in the first two examples equivalent to when? That is to say, the authors took these protases as actual occurrences, not contingencies?

And any differences between the original and my phrasing?

  • Yes, if implies when. The differences between the originals and your phrasing are rhetorical in that the characters are relating the stories and grammar is the least of their concerns.
    – lurker
    Commented Dec 27, 2015 at 22:18

1 Answer 1


The author is talking of actual occurrences in the two first examples, and of a possible, uncertain occurrence in the last example.

So in the first two examples, if means, as explained in Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries:

2 when; whenever; every time.

So you could rephrase the two first examples:

Whenever I ate anything, most of it came right back up as usual.

I even felt guilty when I ate blue cheese.

In the third example, the speaker has no recollection of having eaten that day, but is admitting the possibility that she did and has forgotten about it. So here if does express possibility: maybe she ate, maybe she didn’t:

If I ate that day I have no recollection of it.

Note that when we’re talking about the future if expresses possibility because things may happen one way or another (if it rains tomorrow, if I pass my next exam, etc.). But when talking about the past, things have happened already. So possibility exists only in our minds when we don’t know what happened. That’s the case in the last example. There is that “I have no recollection” that gives the cue that the speaker is not sure whether she’s eaten. In the first two examples there is no such cue that the speaker is uncertain about past events. And if the speaker knows what happened if cannot express possibility.

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