Knowing the standard rules for if clauses I have always wondered whether some speakers just use the if part as if (no pun intended) it were a non-conditional sentence.

I am just watching a movie and have the following example:

If you knew then why did you...

where the speaker finds out that the other person had known that the victim was innocent but still punished him despite this knowledge.

So obviously both things happened in the past - not only grammatically but actually.

My question
When is this non-standard form used? Is it informal? Is it American English (they sometimes say things like "If I would..." and this is also an American movie)? And how is this form called grammatically?

  • 2
    I don't understand what "non-standard" refers to here - the example is normal use of English. Are you suggesting there's some other form that you think is "more standard"? If so, what? You're surely not suggesting that If you had known then why did you... is the "normal, most common" form. Jan 4, 2016 at 16:10
  • @FumbleFingers: Well, it is the grammatically correct form anyway, or am I mistaken?
    – vonjd
    Jan 4, 2016 at 16:39
  • Arguably past perfect could be a "grammatically correct" form in your context, but I'm not even sure about that. Note that it would be both "valid" and "normal" in a context such as If you had known I was coming then surely you'd have baked a cake, but that certainly wouldn't sound good to me with ...then why didn't you bake a cake? Jan 4, 2016 at 16:55
  • @Closevoter: What is the reason for the vote? How can the question be improved? Thank you.
    – vonjd
    Jan 4, 2016 at 16:59
  • @FumbleFingers: Ok, fair enough... perhaps a moderator could transfer it. Will you flag it for moderator attention?
    – vonjd
    Jan 4, 2016 at 17:20

2 Answers 2


Your example is actually perfectly standard.

English conditionals can be either open or remote:

  • In a remote conditional, the if-clause presents a hypothesis that is presupposed to be false. According to traditional grammar, the if-clause then uses either the past subjunctive (with the main clause being in the present conditional) or the pluperfect subjunctive (with the main clause being in the conditional perfect). For example:
    • Present time: "If he were here, I'd be happier." (This is sometimes called a "second conditional".)
    • Past time: "If he'd been here, I'd have been happier." (This is sometimes called a "third conditional".)
  • In an open conditional, the if-clause presents a hypothesis that is held to be possible, or perhaps even true. In this case, its tense follows the normal rules for selecting a tense in adverbial subordinate clauses. For example:
    • Future time: "If you're here tomorrow, please talk to him." (This is sometimes called a "first conditional".)
    • Present time: "If he's not here right now, then he's late." (Ditto.)
    • Past time: "If he wasn't here yesterday, then where was he?" (This doesn't have a numerical name, but it's perfectly standard.)

(Hat-tip to https://literalminded.wordpress.com/2011/07/19/if-i-had-known/ for explaining the relationship of the "first/second/third conditional" terminology to, um, reality.)


It is neither nonstandard nor informal, i.e. it is appropriate in both formal and informal speech. If is in this case equivalent to if it is true that:

If it is true that you knew then why…

Michael Swan (Practical English Usage, OUP, 1998, p. 258) gives the following example:

If you were in Boston, why didn’t you come and see us?

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