Date: [this is an updated old posting, previous to LSEG4 edition]
Q12: ". . . My name is J. I just found your site and I really like it--keep up the good work! OK; here's my question. What is the sequence of tenses in the 'if' part of a third conditional sentence?

    If I hadn't told my father that I
found a job, he wouldn't have offered it to me.

I know the meaning of the sentence is a little bit out of context, but it is the grammar I am after. I can show you the entire letter if you really need the context. What tense should 'found' be?

As a native speaker, past simple feels correct, but all of them feel OK to me. As an ESL teacher, I want to show that I had found a job before I told my father, but since it is a third conditional and 'to tell' is already in the past perfect, we do not have (thank God) a 'past past perfect'
to show this."

From J. - USA

The vast majority of our readers appear to be interested in pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, numerals, prepositions, and Sentence Syntax: all are very nice, interesting grammatical topics. However, the "Achilles' heel" in English grammar is the verb. The English verb is a monster, and only a few are able to master it appropriately. Unfortunately, just a handful of grammar books trouble to present the English verb to its maximum-maximorum extent--though none comes close to LSEG4.

No book in the entire World [not even any 3 of them taken together!] comes close to the level of details, of logic, and of clarity, regarding chapter "Verbs", as it is presented in LSEG4. Truth is, chapter Verbs alone is worth twice the modest price we ask for LSEG4. Note that sooner or later you are going to need some good explanations to help you out, about controlling the English verb.

It is difficult to understand the above question because it is clear the author is fairly confused about using Conditional Complex Sentence. However, nobody is born knowing English grammar; we all have to learn it. Therefore, as long as people do strive to learn Grammar, any mistakes they make are excused.

Now, during the past 50 years or so, grammar was taught "simplified"; the result today is deep confusion among students and teachers as well. Particularly, Conditional Complex Sentence was presented as "having 3 forms"! There is no such thing, dear readers. English grammar is not restrictive; on the contrary, it helps expressing correctly any logic meaning!


The first thing to do, when building a conditional complex sentence, is to set the meaning in conditional clause. Note that conditional clause is marked by specific introductory words: "if", "unless", "if only", etc. The second clause in a conditional complex sentence is the "main clause".

Two scenarios are commonly investigated when building/analyzing Conditional Complex Sentences:

1. the predicate in conditional clause expresses "real action";
2. the predicate in conditional clause expresses "unreal action".

Each instance above is regulated by rules; however, the rules governing unreal action are way tougher. English grammar wants us to express, in meaning, unreal action perfectly clear, without any possibility of mistake/confusion. Therefore, unreal action is expressed using only "subjunctive verbs" in conditional clause, while in main clause the determined predicate has to be a verb in a "conditional mood"—this may sound paradoxical, but that's the way things are; the meaning is perfect/complete using only this specific construction.

The good news is, there are many exceptions to the above rules which help us extend the range of each scenario presented above. In addition, in LSEG4 are described many instances of "equivalent-subjunctive constructions" employing modal defective verbs: this helps expressing more unreal action meanings.
Very important is, Conditional Complex Sentence rules form a category of exceptions to the "Sequence of Tenses". In other words, Conditional Complex Sentence takes precedence over the Sequence of Tenses. Following is a fragment from LSEG4.


In many grammar books Conditional Complex Sentence is presented as having “three forms”: that is a superficial “description” of Rule 2, “unreal action in conditional clause”. The “three forms” simplification is based on the two instances presented in Rule 2, plus Exception 1 presented in Table CS7.2. However, the alarming aspect is the fact that the “three forms” simplification is explained based on “indicative tenses”, not on the “subjunctive” and “conditional” ones!

Of course, some indicative tenses are identical to the subjunctive/conditional ones, but that is only in “form”, not in “meaning”, and certainly not in “functionality”. The “three forms” conditional simplification doesn’t work, it doesn’t sound right, and the meaning makes no sense.

Although it appears to be encouraged in most “modern” English grammar books, the “three forms” Conditional Complex Sentence simplification is a major, serious, grammatical error.

To conclude, based on the meaning explained by the author, the above Conditional Complex Sentence should be:

        If I hadn't told my father that I had found a job, he wouldn't have offered it[sic] to me.

The first clause in green is the conditional subordinate: it is used to express "unreal action", therefore its predicate-verb is set to perfect subjunctive.

Since perfect subjunctive and past perfect indicative have the same form in this instance, the verb in main clause is analyzed: a conditional verb in main clause requires a subjunctive verb in conditional clause, not an indicative one.

A12.B. The second clause in red is a direct object subordinate determining the predicate in conditional clause. In this instance the Sequence of Tenses takes effect, therefore the verb/predicate in the direct object subordinate is set to past perfect indicative to express/highlight the anteriority of the action.

The tricky aspect is the verb "to find": in past tense indicative form, "to find" has the anteriority meaning already embedded implicitly! Consequently, the form in past tense indicative can replace past perfect indicative without problems.

A12.C. In blue is the main clause containing the determined predicate in perfect conditional.

Conditional Complex Sentence is a very difficult topic for students, teachers, and even for professional writers/editors. An entire chapter in
LSEG4 is dedicated to presenting Conditional Complex Sentence rules, most exceptions to the rules, and a few particular constructions; for example, categories of Conditional Complex Sentences in which one clause is missing. In addition, chapter "Verbs"—the largest in LSEG4; it spans on about 180 (double) pages!—helps understanding and extending the range of Conditional Complex Sentence.

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Page last updated on: November 26, 2023
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