“If I had been you” vs. “If I were you” vs. “If I was you” – Second and Third Conditional Tenses in English

Conditional Grammar Sentences in English

Today we have a question from Santosh, a student in the complete Go Natural English course, Fluent Communication 2.0.

I have a question about “Conditional” sentences. Is it possible to say “If I were you I would have done that?” According to the rule, an unreal and hypothetical situation should be structured as if “If I had been you I would have done that.”

Actually, I have noticed this mixed structure on many occasions. Recently I also noticed this while watching movies in English. Could you please share your thoughts. I need your help to get me through this confusing situation. Thanks in advance.

The Rule – How to Form the 2nd Conditional

  • if + past simple, …would + base verb

For example: If you studied harder, you would pass the test.

This means I think you should study more. You are more likely to pass the test if you study.

For example: If I were you, I would study harder.

This means I think you should study harder now.

Click here to read more about the Second Conditional in English Grammar with Examples 

The Rule – How to Form the 3rd Conditional

  • if + past perfect, …would + have + past participle

For example: If you had studied harder, you would have passed the test.

This means I think in the past you did not study very much and that is why you did not pass the test.

For example: If I had been you, I would have studied harder.

This means that I think you did not study very hard, but you should have (in the past).

Click here to read more about the Third Conditional Tense in English Grammar with Examples

And now let’s mix them together:

  • if + past simple, …would + have + past participle

For example: I would have donated money if I were rich.

This means that I am not rich (presently). There was a situation in the past when I wanted to donate money, but I did not donate because I am not rich.

“If I were you” vs. “If I had been you”

Why are these structures sometimes used interchangeably?

It depends on two things:

(1) what you want to say and

(2) how closely you want to follow grammar rules or sound like an (incorrect) native speaker

The Confusing Part

If you’re speaking about a person or a state of being that existed in the past and still exists today, for example being rich, you could use the formation:

  • if + past simple, …would + have + past participle

If I were rich, I would have donated money.

If I were a doctor, I would have treated you.

If I were you, I would have studied harder.

Because the state of being (rich, a doctor, you) are still presently true (or untrue) when I say this sentence, I can use the 2nd conditional formation of “if + past simple” and then to express a conditional situation about the past I use the 3rd conditional formation of “would + have + past participle.”

Read more about “if I were you” in the lesson The Second Conditional English Grammar Tense with Examples

Now… the even more confusing part:

Native Speakers Often Mix Up “If I were you” and “If I had been you”

Conditional grammar is complex, and difficult even for native speakers. Many people, even educated people, use “if I were you” and “if I had been you” interchangeably.

“If I had been you, I would have …” is grammatically correct in Santosh’s example above However, I can tell you that it does not sound very natural. We have discovered an instance of when correct grammar is not actually used much in real life.

If I were you, I would invest my money wisely. –> Correct 2nd conditional.

If I had been you, I would have bought a house in 2012. –> Correct 3rd conditional

It would be more likely to hear “If I were you, I would have bought a house in 2012.”

This is not necessarily correct, but it is more likely to be used by native speakers.

Sorry if this is confusing, but it is important to know how English is really used in the world, and not only in your grammar books.

Correct way — “If I had been rich, I would have helped you.”

This means that in the past I was not rich. In the past I wanted to help you. Since I was not rich, I didn’t help you.

If I am still not rich — “If I WERE rich I would have helped you.”

Correct way — “I would have treated you if I had been a doctor.”

If I am still not a doctor — “I would have treated you If I WERE a doctor.

Furthermore, when native speakers DO actually use the third conditional, they always contract and blend the sounds!

If I had been you… turns into “f’i’d’a’been you…” 

I would have… turns into “I woulda”

Because “If I had” basically turns into “fida” when pronounced by natives, it is extremely difficult to discern for English language learners.

I do not suggest trying to copy this pronunciation at first, but simply be aware that this is how native English speakers sound in the real world!

For example:

In writing: If I had been you, I would have studied harder.

Actual pronunciation: “Fida been you, I woulda studied harder.”

“If I were you” vs. “If I was you”

Furthermore, native speakers often use an incorrect version of “if I were you.” It is more likely than not to hear native English speakers using the grammatically incorrect “if I was you” instead of the correct “if I were you.”

“If I were you, I would have done that” is considered a correct sentence. Additionally, many native speakers (incorrectly) say “If I was you, I would have done that. It is really very common, although incorrect.

A few more examples using second conditional:

If I were a man, I would be named Gabriel, not Gabrielle.

–> Incorrect but common usage: If I was a man, I would be named Gabriel, not Gabrielle

If it were hotter today, it would be a great day for the beach.

–> Incorrect but common usage: If it was hotter today, it would be a great day for the beach.

I hope this is helpful! Please tell me in the comments if you have questions. Can you try making a few sentences using the second and third conditional?

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