Can someone parse this conditional sentence?

If you had found out what he (do), you would have been angry.

What tense should the (do) be in? One website I found said it should be past perfect, but my first instinct is past simple. As an extension to this question, what if the if clause has even more verbs in it?

If you had discovered what he (do) when he (go) there, you would have been angry.

And what if they’re in the dependent clause?

If you had discovered his actions, you would have been angry at what he (decide) to do.

When I look at all of these parenthetical verbs above, I want to use the simple past. If I’m wrong, can someone explain why?

Well, in the first example, the past perfect and simple past yield different meanings:
[li]If you had found out what he’d done, you would have been angry reads (to me) “if you knew about this particular thing he did, it would piss you off”.[/li][li]If you had found out what he did, you would have been angry seems to say 'if you knew what he used to do for a living, it would piss you off".[/li][/ul]
I’m too tired to analyze the others.

  1. Are you asking for someone to parse the sentence ( = identify its constituent parts of speech) or to advise you on the verb selection? Parsing the sentence will not decide for you whether ‘did’ or ‘had done’ would be best.

  2. As to which verb you should use, the answer is: use whichever most clearly conveys what you want to say. If using the simple past tense adequately conveys what you mean, then there is no need to use anything else.

  3. Reference books and websites can be useful, but sometimes they disagree, and sometimes they prescribe rules that are, at best, either arbitrary or as applicable as often as they are not.

This is true. Just to make sure it’s clear, let it be noted that it’s also true that if using the past perfect adequately sounds good to you, then there is no need to use anything else, either. There aren’t very strong forces of compulsion here.

Basically, to the OP: don’t worry about it; there aren’t some secret arcane rules you have to learn in order to be able to speak your native language. Just say what comes naturally, and you’ll be fine.

Since the second clause is conditional perfect, the pluperfect (past perfect=pluperfect, right? Checks wikipedia…right) is indicated.

If + present-> (then) imperative, future, or present.

E.g. If you want to go, go.
E.g. If you want to go, I’ll tag along.
E.g. If you want to go, I’m going too.

If + past-> (then) conditional
E.g. If you went, I would go.

If + past perfect -> (then) conditional perfect (See how this parallels the above but in the past).
If you had gone, I would have gone with you.

So OP’s questions:
If you want to use the simple past: If you found out what he did, you would be angry.

The pluperfect is for distinguishing that one thing happened farther back in the past, e.g. “When we awoke Christmas morning, Santa had already visited.”

If you had discovered what he had done [already] when he [later] went there, you would have been angry.

If you had discovered what he had did when he went [i.e. at the same time]there, you would have been angry.
That’s my read.

Yup. I agree with both of you.

However, it seems that the OP isn’t sure which phrasing would best get across his meaning unambiguously. ‘Getting your grammar right’ is often just another way of saying ‘getting your meaning across without misunderstanding.’

@the OP: with third conditionals, you usually take a step backwards in time for the modal verb - do, in your examples. So, if you mean present, say past, if you mean past simple, use past perfect. That’s why the websites you’ve seen are recommending past perfect; they’re assuming that the non-conditional form of the sentence would be in the past. (They’re assuming this because of your ‘if’ clause, btw, which is in the past perfect).

*If you had found out what he had done, you would have been angry. *

That is, without doubt, referring to a discreet action or actions that occurred before you finding it out. It’s in the past. It would also mean that those actions were definitely completed.

You definitely could say ‘if you had found out what he did, you would have been angry,’ and it would get the same meaning across (because past simple can be used instead of past perfect informally in conditional sentences) - but with a fair bit more ambiguity. See, that sentence could also be about him doing things habitually or things that he’s still doing now (like I said above - present simple modal = past simple modal in conditionals). As lobotomyboy says, you could be talking about a job he’s still in. If, say, you’re talking about a politician who used to smoke pot but doesn’t any more, you’d be well advised to be clear about it being in the past.

If you want to say that it definitely is something he still does, then use, ‘does.’

So it depends what meaning you want to get across.

You don’t need to worry about the go verb being in a conditional sentence. The do verb does all the work - you don’t need to change tenses twice. You use whatever verb you’d use if you were writing it as a non-conditional clause. ‘He went there’ = ‘if you had found out what he’d done/did/does when he went there.’

Same with the dependant clause. ‘Decided’ would mean that he took the decision after the actions. ‘Had decided’ would mean that he took the decision before those actions. But, again, they’re not affected by being part of a conditional sentence because the modal verb does all the work.

You haven’t asked about the ‘had discovered’ bit, so it seems you’re clear with what you mean there. You know that if you wrote ‘if you found out …’ it would be referring to a hypothetical discovery that could still take place. If you say ‘had found out’ it means that the chance for discovering his past as a puppy rapist (and getting angry about it) is long gone. Apply the same common sense to the other parts of your sentence and you’ll probably get it right.

It’s easy to make that claim when one is as well-schooled in the use of the language as you are. What is natural to you after the exposure that you have had is one thing. What is natural to another may be essentially incoherent to the majority when written down.

I have no objection to the use of dialect or to the natural change of language that comes with time.* But a free-for-all that doesn’t communicate doesn’t serve the purpose.
*One change I will object to is the use of alright for all right. Never!

So is there a difference in meaning between

I If you had found out what he had done, you would have been angry.
II If you had found out what he did, you would have been angry.

fachverwirrt sees it as a distinction between something done and a job, which I can see, but I’m more interested in the distinction between sentences like
If you had found out what he (had done/did) to your dog, you would have been angry.

lobotomyboy, if I’m reading it correctly, sees it as a distinction between your finding out something “he” did before your opportunity to find out, but you missed the chance when the opportunity came around (sent I), and finding out something he did at an indeterminate time in the past (sent II). I think scifisam is saying something similar, that the “did” could indicate an action that the “he” might be continuing to do.

So OK, I think I get it. The “had done” indicates that there is something clearly done and finished in the past. The “did” introduces more ambiguity to the situation. I don’t know if I’ve subconsciously used them like this in the past. It’s hard to think about what exactly means what when you’re trying to teach it to someone else. I’ve studied some grammar, but the gaping holes in my grammatical education really come to the fore when getting down to the nitty-gritty of explaining subtle distinctions like this one to an ESL speaker.

“When we awoke Christmas morning, Santa had already visited.”
“When we awoke Christmas morning, Santa visited.”

If we don’t put it in the pluperfect, we saw Santa that morning.

If you had discovered what he had done [already] when he [later] went there, you would have been angry.

Say he emailed the boss with a bunch of lies on Tuesday, then came to your meeting Wednesday and acted like he was everybody’s best friend. Pluperfect would make it clear that the first action was already finished when the second took place. The emailing took place farther back in the past.
If you had discovered what he had did when he went [i.e. at the same time]there, you would have been angry.

Maybe he was emailing the boss during the meeting. The simple past for both makes them seem more or less at the same point in the past.

In general, use the past perfect when it’s needed to clarify the timing of past events–especially as one relates to another–and use the past simple if clarification is not required.

Don’t worry about whether the item you are clarifying is part of a larger conditional structure or not, or which clause it’s in, or how many individual components you’ve squeezed into a given clause.

So, for example, with your first sample sentence:

“If you had found out what he (do), you would have been angry.”

“…had found…” clarifies that the process of finding out needs to have been completed. The past perfect is necessary to convey that meaning.

What about the “do” part? There isn’t a separate rule that, because of what’s happening in the rest of the whole sentence (or whether the whole thing is conditional) you must use past or past perfect. The question to ask is whether the use of past perfect for that individual component adds clarity. I agree with the (more expert) posters above that using the past perfect removes a tiny bit of ambiguity by making it absolutely clear that the action has been completed.

Get rid of the (unnecessary, I think), focus on the conditional. I don’t see where that makes any difference in deciding on whether or not to use the past perfect for a sub-component.


You found out what he did and you were angry.

*You had found out what he did and you were angry. * (Here I think most of us would hear this as a contraction for "…what he did at the time and is possibly still doing–for a living, e.g.)

You had found out what he had done and you were angry.
I don’t think the second sentence is wrong, but aside from being ambiguous it grates on my ear. Perhaps for me it’s a bit close to “had did” which really hurts.

An ESL student able to grapple with these subtleties is doing a lot better than most of us EFL students, I’d say…most of the time the past perfect is needed only to clarify which of two past events occurred first.

I had gotten upset and I spoke to my sister.
I had spoken to my sister and I got upset.

edit: wrong

It does make a difference that the sentence is in the condtional. You move a step back in time for the conditional.

The only vegetables he liked were carrots and cucumber. If he had liked more vegetables, he would have been healthier.

If you say ‘if he liked more vegetables’ that’d be you talking about the present, not the past.

I am not sure I agree with this. The conditional does not necessarily step back in time.
If I win this argument you’ll admit your error. Conditional (irrealis). And not past.

Long day of travel for me, so I may have to eat crow for dinner, but the point I’m trying to make is that whether or not the sentence is conditional does not tell you whether or not to choose past perfect or past; minimizing ambiguity in meaning for the component in question is what determines that…

E (late) TA: Forgot a smiley

irrealis :slight_smile:

and prob realis but I am too tired to look it up…in any case, not past but still conditional

That’s second conditional, not third. The OP’s statements were all in third conditional. Third conditional does require that you move a step back in time (except that, as I said before, you can use past simple for past simple if you want - it’s just not as clear). I should have been specific before, I guess, but since the statements we were talking about were all third conditional, it didn’t occur to me. Telling him he didn’t need to worry about them being in the conditional was incorrect (especally since he’s asking for this info in order to pass it on to an ESL speaker).