Verb Mistakes #1: Didn’t With Conditional

By Maeve Maddox

One type of conditional sentence refers to a situation in the past that might have happened, but didn’t. The speaker is speculating about what might have happened if things had been different. In this type of sentence, the verb in the “if clause” will be in the past perfect tense, and the main clause will contain the modal would or could.

Note: The past perfect tense uses had + a past participle. For example, “had gone.”

A common error is to use a didn’t construction in the “if clause.” Here are some examples:

Incorrect: What If Dave Roberts Didn’t Steal 2nd Base?
Correct : What If Dave Roberts Hadn’t Stolen 2nd Base?

Dave Roberts is a baseball player. This headline references a game played in 2004. As Roberts did, in fact, steal the base, the correct verb for the “if clause” is “hadn’t stolen,” not “didn’t steal.”

Incorrect: She probably would have lived to 90 if this didn’t happen.
Correct : She probably would have lived to 90 if this hadn’t happened.

This line of dialogue is from a movie in which a young woman has been murdered. As the woman is dead and cannot live to be 90, the correct verb for the “if clause” is “hadn’t happened.”

Incorrect: But imagine if I didn’t have access to health insurance through my job.
Correct : But imagine if I hadn’t had access to health insurance through my job.

The original statement is from a blog entry in which a man tells how he survived a serious illness because he did, in fact, have access to adequate health insurance at the time. The correct verb form for the “if clause,” therefore, is “hadn’t had.”

Incorrect: If Brian Epstein didn’t die and if John Lennon didn’t meet Yoko Ono, would the Beatles have stayed together?
Correct : If Brian Epstein hadn’t died and if John Lennon hadn’t met Yoko Ono, would the Beatles have stayed together?

This Yahoo question presumably dates from the current century. Beatle manager Brian Epstein died in 1967, Lennon met Ono in 1968, and the group’s break-up was announced in 1970. The correct verb forms for the “if clauses,” therefore, are “hadn’t died” and “hadn’t met.”

Incorrect: What would have happened if the Titanic didn’t sink?
Correct : What would have happened if the Titanic hadn’t sunk?

I’ve noticed this hypothetical question about the Titanic on more than one site. As anyone who watches Masterpiece Theatre ought to be able to tell you, the British passenger liner RMS Titanic sank in 1912. Therefore, the correct verb form for the “if clause” is “hadn’t sunk.”

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1 Response to “Verb Mistakes #1: Didn’t With Conditional”

  • Charles Higginson

    This entry reminds me of a habit of speech that has become widespread among coaches and others involved in athletics — a tendency to speak of past conditionals in a weird kind of present continuous. “He misses that shot, it’s a different ballgame.” It is economical – that’s five words shorter than “If he had missed that shot, it would have been a different ballgame.” And, realistically, it’s probably rarely misunderstood.
    “I pay attention in English class, I speak more clearly.”

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