Does Present Perfect suit unreal conditionals?


If you knew that, you’ve passed what used to be one of Google’s mind-scrambling job-interview questions. (the source)

I can't understand what conditional it is and wether it is a conditional at all. The first clause is in Past, but the second is in Present Perfect. And there is no "would" at all, but definitely it is an unreal conditional.


Posted 2013-06-26T07:49:48.173

Reputation: 7 310



This is an elaboration on other answers (particularly StoneyB's) but is too long to fit as a comment.

Part of the difficulty here may be because in most cases if + past simple clauses fulfil one of two functions:

to introduce a hypothesis about a seemingly unlikely future event

to introduce a counterfactual.

This is the archetypical Conditional 2. Examples are:

If I won a lot of money, I would retire immediately (but I don't expect to win a lot of money).

If I knew the answer, I would tell you (but I don't know the answer).

In both cases the main clause usually contains would or could.

However, in the sentence: If you knew that, you’ve passed ... . we are dealing with a past event which may or may not be true. Either you knew it or you didn't. However, if you did know, then ... . And what comes in the main clause after the then can be in any appropriate tense to convey your meaning:

If you knew the answer, you are one of the few that did.

If you knew the answer, you passed the test.

If you knew the answer, you've passed the test.

If you knew the answer, you will have passed the test.

If you knew the answer, you can feel proud of yourself.

If you knew the answer, you might get the job.


Posted 2013-06-26T07:49:48.173

Reputation: 2 793

1Let me think. It is as my friend had a test and he is not sure about one his answer, and the result of the test is known for the committee, but we will get it tomorrow. I can say: "If you answered that question correctly, you have passed the test." – Graduate – 2013-06-26T13:14:36.220

1Yes, that is correct. – Shoe – 2013-06-26T13:17:53.420


This is not a conditional sentence. My interpretation of this sentence would be that the writer is not referring to you (the reader) as someone who is actually going through Google's job interview process. The reader is not thought of as an actual or prospective interviewee in this scenario.

The sentence just states that "Knowing the answer will get you past this question in Google's interview process." In other words, thinking along those lines is what Google expects from its (potential) employees.

This sentence is not meant as a recommendation / reprimand for interviewees and therefore does not constitute a condition under which you can / cannot succeed in the interview. It just describes what kind of questions can be asked and what the correct answer is, mentioning more as a side note that if you happen to know it, you will score on this question.

If you rephrase this sentence as conditional, it will actually put the reader in the interveiw setting, which is not what the author is going for.

I read through all of the answers here, and I have to disagree with some of them. If I'm wrong, please don't cast stones at me, but point me to where I can read more.

My point is that you can't call every if-sentence a conditional sentence from a logical perspective. I see here examples of if-sentences with all sorts of mixture of tenses. Although I know about mixed conditionals, some of these examples don't seem to me as either "normal" or "mixed" conditionals. That's why a conditional mood was invented in English or many other languages: it's used to convey an idea of condition/consequence. You can't just use any tense you want in an if-sentence and hope it will retain it's conditional sense. On the contrary, you often lose this concept of logical condition or make it more vague and subtle. It still resembles an if-conditional, but it often makes the condition -> consequence sound less relevant.

For example,

If you knew the answer, you've passed the test.

I would say a condition is, of course, implied here, but the focus has been shifted from the condition to the fact of having passed the test with knowing the answer as an undoubted prerequisite, not a condition.


If you visited a Midwest farm last summer, you have seen what drought can do to crops.

To me, it means something more like those who visited a Midwest farm have seen... A visit to a Midwest farm is just an example of how you can see the power of drought, I don't see it as a condition.


Posted 2013-06-26T07:49:48.173

Reputation: 977

Since grammar terminology is a minefield of shifting goalposts, to excuse the mixed metaphor, it is entirely possible that some grammarians would not consider the examples at the end of my post as conditionals. But here is what the Cambridge Grammar of English (p749) says: In conditional clauses which refer to real situations, tenses are normally used in the same way as in other kinds of sentence. Present tenses are used to talk about present and future events ... and past tenses are used to talk about past events. – Shoe – 2013-06-26T16:13:18.977

I just thought those well described conditional types were singled out by grammarians for a reason. I thought the reason was that they convey a conditional mood. I'm not sure but I think there might be languages out there that mark condition morphologically and unambiguously. If so, it would prove that traditional grammatical patterns for marking conditions in languages where it's not outright obvious, cannot be ignored. – stillenat – 2013-06-26T16:23:07.673


It's a "first conditional", but the condition is cast in the true past (not 'subjunctive' or 'irrealis' past) tense.

If you already knew that before you read the answer, you have passed ...

This doesn't often show up in the textbooks, but it's not that unusual.

If you visited a Midwest farm last summer, you have seen what drought can do to crops.
If Bob was there I bet you heard one of his stories.

StoneyB on hiatus

Posted 2013-06-26T07:49:48.173

Reputation: 176 469

If I put the second clause in the proper past, will it change the meaning? "If you knew that, you passed the test." – Graduate – 2013-06-26T12:23:48.277

1@Graduate In this case not much: it makes passing a little more distant, nothing more. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-06-26T12:27:55.847

I will try to make a similar sentence—"If you practiced this before, you are lucky now. Current job openning requires this skill." – Graduate – 2013-06-26T12:32:01.273

1@Graduate That one really calls for present perfect, "If you have practised this, you're lucky", because it's about the relevance of that past action to your current state. You use past tense when the action must be located in the past: "If you started that job last year, you're lucky, because this opening requires a year's experience." – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-06-26T12:37:18.670

I guess this sentence is a "first conditional" because by "you" the author refers to a group of people (as stillenat has pointed out). Because, for example, if you knew for sure that I have not practised that, you couldn't use real conditionals ("If you have practised that"). – Graduate – 2013-06-26T12:51:36.260

@Graduate Exactly - 2/3 (irrealis) Conditionals are marked by past forms. *Have practised* is a present form. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-06-26T13:28:42.777

@StoneyB Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I've always thought of a conditional sentence in terms of logic. To me, for a sentence to qualify as conditional, it should contain a condition and a consequence. Does the mere fact of including if in a sentence really make it conditional? I can't see condition -> consequence in your last two sentences. For example, doesn't the 1st sentence simply mean: "Those who visited a Midwest farm have seen..."? A visit to a Midwest farm is just an example of how you can see the power of drought, I don't see it as a condition. – stillenat – 2013-06-26T14:09:07.900

@stillenat Syntactically, a condition is a condition; the grammar doesn't care whether it's trivial or even meaningful. "If you weeble the dorstat, you must unfrack your colpotition." That's a conditional construction. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-06-26T15:44:31.387

Syntactically, yes. But what about semantics? If you forget about the if word and think about what results in what, in terms of conditional meaning. I think it's not quite the same. – stillenat – 2013-06-26T15:50:03.767

@stillenat Logically, you're improperly restricting condition to necessary conditions and excluding sufficient conditions. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-06-26T15:56:57.947

@StoneyB I have to agree that there are different types of conditions. But what I really needed to stress in my comment, is that there are well defined grammatical constructs to denote a conditional mood in many languages, including English, just as there are grammatical ways to mark an indicative (usually unmarked) or subjunctive (expressively marked in many languages) mood. So if you decide not to use these markers, your utterance may fall out of "the right mood". Maybe it's not the case with English, though. – stillenat – 2013-06-26T16:42:55.687

@stillenat In English there are so few forms that those which exist must serve multiple functions; the 'markers' are not unambiguous. "If you knew (simple past)" is not the same as "If you knew (irrealis)", although they employ the same form of the verb. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-06-26T17:01:08.940


It isn't purely a conditional form. However, it does closely resemble a form of what's known as a mixed conditional, specifically a mixed 2/3 conditional. Mixed conditionals can have quite varied structure and uses. This particular example is not necessarily an unreal conditional (or even a conditional at all), since it links a possibility in the past with a possible present (imagine the first conditional, but shifted from present/future back in time to the past/present).

For more on Mixed Conditionals in general:

Typical Structure of Mixed 2/3 Conditional:
'If' + past simple, ... modal verb (often 'would') + 'have' + past participial.

Additional Resources:
BBC Mixed Conditionals Mixed Conditionals
British Council Mixed Conditionals

Conditionals and especially mixed conditionals are on the border of what can be reduced to a formula of grammar structure. It is entirely possible to create or encounter grammatically correct sentences which do not follow the structure or usage guidelines such as the one I gave or the ones in most textbooks.


Posted 2013-06-26T07:49:48.173

Reputation: 1 991

But both 2nd and 3rd conditionals has 'would.' You did not comment on its absence in the starting sentence. – Graduate – 2013-06-26T12:19:27.933

I said that it isn't a conditional sentence as defined by the guidelines of structure formulas. Most notably the lack of 'would'. – Walter – 2013-06-26T13:28:55.297