if + Past Tense would + infinitive

So if I follow up if with a past tense and then use would in the conditional clause, I can construct the rest of the sentence in anyway I please, right?

Using the present tense:

"If he was a hero, he'd be a hero our city has but doesn't need."

Using the past tense:

"If he was a hero, he'd be a hero our city had but didn't need."

  • Would both the above sentences be correct?
  • Would there be any difference in their meaning?
  • In contexts like this, is it compulsory for me to keep the entire sentence in the past?
  • Maybe none. I think we should use would in that-clause, too. "... he'd be a hero our city would have, but wouldn't need".
    – Yuri
    Apr 3, 2016 at 10:31
  • That's an alternative. I don't think either of the sentences are wrong though. Apr 3, 2016 at 10:48
  • @Yuri, i mean from a grammatical standpoint. Apr 3, 2016 at 11:07

4 Answers 4


For standard usage, you need to use the past tense for the whole sentence, since the whole sentence talks about a contrary-to-fact situation. Therefore, only

If he was a hero, he'd be a hero our city had, but didn't need.

is correct to express the "unreality" (irrealis) of the scenario you are talking about.

We can say another, similar sentence

If he was a hero that our city had but didn't need, he'd be that kind of hero.

Here, you see the verbs in the relative clause (that our city had but didn't need) are in the past tense because what they are talking about is also "unreal". And this is the way English talks about "unreality." It would be unusual/non-standard to use present verbs in this relative clause. And it would also be unnatural to use the present tense in the same relative clause when it is in the main part of the sentence.


Short answer: no, they are not both correct; and they are not the same.

To start, strictly speaking conditional sentences should use the subjunctive mood, so in this case you should arguably use "if he were"; but this rule is often ignored (or considered irrelevant) so I'm using "If he was" in the following.

The 2nd conditional is used for scenarios that are possible. This can refer to events at present and in the future. With your first sentence you suggest that it is possible that he is a hero, and therefore you can say, using present tense (which makes this a 2nd conditional):

If he were a hero, he'd be a hero our city has, but doesn't need."

If you refer to the past - you don't know whether in the past he was a hero or not, but make an observation on that past for the possible case that he was - then "would be" is not appropriate, since it refers to the future. You should use instead:

If he was a hero, he was a hero our city had, but didn't need.

The former might be considered unusual or incorrect by some people.

For completeness, you should consider the 3rd conditional, which is used for scenarios that are impossible. This always refers to a known past, where reality is different from the scenario discussed - so the condition is imaginary. Using the 3rd conditional, you could say

If he had been a hero, he would have been a hero our city had, but didn't need.

This implies that in reality (or in your opinion) he was not a hero.

  • The so-called first conditional is used for things that are possible, the second conditional for unreal situations (irrealis). Jun 2, 2016 at 16:11

They both sound right, but could be slightly different in meaning, obviously.

It is common for heroes of the past to be still considered heroes today. Also, there always can be controversies over whether some of the historical figures should be considered heroes or not. In cases like this, you could say something like:

If he were to be called a hero, he'd be a hero our city didn't want nor need.

If you replace didn't with doesn't, which is the present tense, the sentence would mean something different. So I guess you could adjust tenses depending on what you're trying to say.



If it was on fire, then we would see some smoke.

If it was on fire, then we would have seen some smoke.

Because of the slop in the language-as-spoken, we cannot know what the if-clause means until we process the then-clause, and even then, maybe not.

.... then we would have seen some smoke [by now? at the time?]

But if the speaker "marks" the if-clause with more precision, its meaning can be discerned without reference to the then-clause.

If it were on fire, then we would see some smoke. [it is not burning now]

It it had been on fire, then we would have seen some smoke. [it was not burning then]

  • The second emphasized sentence, which has "if it was" and "we would have seen", mixes 2nd and 3rd conditionals - so it's actually incorrect (even if some people talk like that). I think this should be clarified in your answer. Apr 4, 2016 at 17:07
  • I'd rather call it "slop" (engineering-lingo for "very wide tolerances") not incorrect. Apr 4, 2016 at 19:10
  • Can you provide any supporting sources for this structure? I suspect that English grammar students who use it may find it reduces their test grades... Apr 4, 2016 at 21:15
  • @Laugh: I think that by calling it "slop" I've done enough to warn the grades-conscious grammar student. Please feel free to put up an answer yourself, condemning the usage in more certain terms. Apr 5, 2016 at 12:07

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .