“Did” vs. “had done”



Are both these constructions possible to mean the same thing?

  1. If I told you how I did it, it wouldn't be a surprise.
  2. If I told you how I had done it, it wouldn't be a surprise.


Posted 2014-02-18T00:17:21.483




No. The second sentence is ungrammatical.

The past forms you employ, told in the condition or IF clause and would in the consequence or THEN clause, do not signify past tense; they signify unreal mode. These two clauses are both cast in the non-past tense. The Reference Time of these sentences—the time you are speaking about—is therefore non-past, present+future, “from now on”. The simple past form did properly refers the pastness of what you did to that “present” Reference Time: it happened “before now”.

A past perfect like had done, however, must be related to a past Reference Time: it distinguishes an event as having taken place “before then”, not “before now”. In your second sentence the past perfect has no past time to which it may be related; the sentence is therefore ungrammatical.

What you may say is

If I told you how I have done it, it wouldn't be a surprise.

There is however no particular reason I can think of why you should use a perfect there: you are speaking of a past event, not a present state, so the simple past did is preferred.

StoneyB on hiatus

Posted 2014-02-18T00:17:21.483

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