In this post (Using just Past Simple in the Third conditional) Michael Swan says:

262 if (7): other structures found in spoken English

4 mixed tenses
Sometimes a simple past tense is used with if where a past perfect would be normal. This is more common in American English.
    If I knew you were coming I'd have baked a cake.
    If I had the money with me I would have bought you one.
    If I didn't have my walking boots on I think I would have really hurt my foot.

However, Swan does not give examples for the verb to be case. I wonder if American speakers -informally- also use the past simple for verb to be too in counterfactual (unreal) past situations.

It seems that this thought is possible in theory. There is this quote for an Australian speaker on Yahoo News

It's likely a police officer who was shot at a Sydney hospital would have died if he wasn't in the emergency ward at the time.

  • 1
    If I was king back then, I would have had bacon every day. Especially if there's another time-marker establishing the time, you'll hear the simple past used for past unreal very often.
    – TimR
    Jan 28, 2016 at 19:50
  • I don't like the example of the Australian's sentence. I personally would use if he hadn't been in the emergency ward at the time. But I also like to consistently use were as in If she weren't my sister, I'd throw her into the pond. Some speakers would use wasn't there and it sounds terrible to me. The use of wasn't in your sentence doesn't sound as egregiously bad, but it does sound off.
    – GoDucks
    Jan 28, 2016 at 23:37
  • @TRomano Thank you very much. Your comment was better off put as an answer
    – learner
    Feb 2, 2016 at 13:34

1 Answer 1


This is an example of "tense simplification," meaning that verbs in subordinate clauses take simpler forms when the tense is obvious from the main clause. For an existing thread on the subject, have a look at this. Also, have a look at Practical English Usage by Michael Swan, in particular "tense simplification in subordinate clauses" on page 578.

  • Thanks BobRodes. Looking at it as an example of tense simplification sounds interesting. I don't remember looking at it that way!
    – learner
    Feb 2, 2016 at 13:26

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