The Grammarphobia Blog

Tense and tense ability

Q: I’m from Russia. When I studied English in school, I didn’t encounter a sentence structure that I keep hearing from my American friends. They say “When I was little, I would often fight with other kids” while I say “When I was little, I often fought with other kids.” Which is correct? Also, please tell me if this sentence is correct: “If I showed him, he would have believed me.”

A: People use “would” a lot to describe actions performed habitually in the past, much in the way they use the expression “used to.”

For instance, one might say, “When I was little, I would play with matches and my mother would scold me.” Another way of saying this is, “When I was little, I used to play with matches and my mother used to scold me.”

Both of these are legitimate. They’re useful because the simple past (“When I was little, I played with matches and my mother scolded me”) might imply that the event happened only once.

A common error with “would” is illustrated in these sentences: “If I would have shown him, he would have believed me.” And, “If I showed him, he would have believed me.”

These illegitimate uses are errors in what’s called sequence of tenses. The problem is that people are neglecting to use the past perfect tense (“had known,” “had shown,” etc.). The challenge is to juggle two tenses in one “if” sentence. Here’s a fairly simple explanation:

(1) If the first verb is in the simple present, the second should be in the simple future: “If I show him, he will believe me.” (Negative version: “If I don’t show him, he won’t believe me.”)

(2) If the first verb is in the simple past, the second should be in the simple conditional: “If I showed him, he would believe me.” (Negative version: “If I didn’t show him, he wouldn’t believe me.”)

(3) If the first verb is in the past perfect, the second should be in the conditional perfect: “If I had shown him, he would have believed me.” (Negative version: “If I hadn’t shown him, he wouldn’t have believed me.”)

I hope this helps.

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