The second conditional in English

by Laura Jones
May 01, 2021
friends learning the second conditional together

Do you want to learn how to hypothesise in English? Then you need to use the second conditional! We use the second conditional to talk about hypothetical events in the present or future. We use it to talk about things that are impossible or unlikely to happen. 

The structure of the second conditional

The second conditional is made of two clauses: the conditional clause and the main or result clause. The structure of a sentence in the second conditional is: 

Conditional clauseMain / result clause
If + past simple,would + verb (infinitive).
  • If I won the lottery, I would go to Hawaii. 

We can change the order of the clauses without changing the meaning. If the main clause comes first in the sentence, we don’t need a comma. 

  • I would go to Hawaii if I won the lottery.

Be careful!

Learners often get confused and think that the second conditional refers to the past because it has the past tense in it. Like we talked about in our modal verb blogs, past tenses in English don’t only refer to the past. We also use past tenses to hypothesise and to be polite. This is why we use past tenses to imagine things in the present or future in the second conditional. 

The zero conditional in English

Imagining the present

If you like daydreaming about how your present reality could be different, the second conditional is for you! Here are some examples of the second conditional used to imagine in the present. 

  • If I had a car, I would drive it every day. 
  • If I were taller, I would be able to reach that shelf.
  • I wouldn’t be happy if Kelly were my boss. 

Notice that if the verb be is in the conditional clause, we should use were, not was after the subjects I and he/she/it. If you are speaking in an informal situation, it’s OK to use was; lots of native speakers do this. 

Giving advice with the second conditional

We often use the second conditional to give advice. The structure looks like this: 

  • If I were you,…
    • If I were you, I wouldn’t tell Tom anything about it. 
    • I would see a doctor if I were you

Imagining the future with the second conditional

The structure for imagining the future is exactly the same as for imagining the present. 

  • If I won the lottery, I would quit my job.
  • If I went to the party, I would buy a new suit. (The party and the imaginary suit-buying are in the future.)
  • If they arrived late, they wouldn’t be able to get on the plane.

First or second conditional for the future?

We use both the first and the second conditional to talk about the future. The first conditional is used when we are talking about things that are likely to happen in the future. The second conditional is for things that are unlikely or impossible. 

Sometimes it’s obvious which one we should use. For example, if we’re thinking about winning the lottery, that’s something that’s quite unlikely to happen so we would choose the second conditional. 

However, both of these sentences are correct: 

  • If they arrive late, they won’t be able to get on the plane. (first conditional)
  • If they arrived late, they wouldn’t be able to get on the plane. (second conditional)

In the first sentence, you think it is likely they will be late. Maybe you know they are stuck in traffic, or perhaps they are people who are always late. In the second sentence, you think it’s unlikely they’ll be late. They’re more likely to be your reliable grandparents who always arrive half an hour early to things. 

All about the verb “to be” in English

The past continuous

We can replace the past simple with the past continuous in the second conditional. We can also use a continuous verb form in the main clause too. 

  • If I weren’t helping my dad cook dinner, I would be playing on my computer. 
  • If Bob weren’t working on Saturday, he would come to the barbecue. 

Other modal verbs

We can also use other modal verbs instead of would. Could and might are the ones we use most often. 

  • If I were taller, I could ride that roller coaster. 
  • John might be happier if he had more money. 
  • If they lived in the US, they might need a car to travel around. 

Interesting second conditional questions

You can learn a lot about someone by asking them questions in the second conditional. Employers often ask these kinds of questions in job interviews too. Here are some examples. How would you answer these questions?

  • If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you live?
  • If you won the lottery, what would you do first?
  • What would you do if a customer shouted at you in public?
  • If you started your own business, what kind of business would you start?
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