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I learn that there are 3 types of conditional sentences:

  • Type 1 (present and possible): If I have money (and it's possible one day), I will donate.
  • Type 2 (present and impossible): If I had money now (but I don't), I would donate.
  • Type 3 (past and impossible): If I had had money (but I didn't), I would have donated.

What if I want to express something in the past that is possible, eg. If he had money before (and I don't know if he did, but it is possible), then he would donate?

  • 2
    Using the word 'impossible' for both types 2 and 3 is perhaps misleading. Type 3 refers to things that could have happened but did not. You may find that this summary makes the distinction clear. edufind.com/english-grammar/conditional – JavaLatte Apr 7 '16 at 6:27
  • Thanks for the link. It helped me answer the question I had in the beginning! – Alex Apr 7 '16 at 6:36
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    @JavaLatte Type 3 can refer to things that could have happened and did! Both 2 and 3 are not always about things that won't/didn't happen. – Araucaria Apr 7 '16 at 10:44
  • Agreed, @Araucaria. – JavaLatte Apr 7 '16 at 12:16
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Past and possible:

If I had money, I gave it.

I don't know or don't remember if I had the money, but if I did, I gave it.

It's possible I had money, but I'm not sure. If I had it, I gave it.

Another example:

Is she was at the party last night, I didn't see her.

It's possible she was at the party last night, but whether she was or not, I didn't see her.

So we use the regular past tense in the if-clause and we do not have to use a modal verb in the main clause, like we do when we refer to contrary-to-fact (irrealis) situations. But we could use a modal:

If she was at the party last night, I might/would/could/must/will not have seen her because I wore a blindfold all night.

Here, all these modals do not carry any irrealis meaning.

The important thing is not to use a verb form (such as were or had had) in the if-clause that would signal that you are talking about something not real (irrealis.

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I think the correct term is "imaginary" rather than "impossible". The condition in the 2nd and 3rd conditionals doesn't have to be impossible, but it refers to something you imagine rather than to reality.

With that in mind, if you don't know whether something happened in the past or not, you may imagine that it happened, and describe the result; for example

If he had had money, he would have donated.

That does not necessarily mean you think/know that he had no money.

  • The technical term is either irrealis or counter-factual. – Colin Fine Apr 28 '16 at 23:09

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