Unreal English Grammar: A Detailed Exploration of the Second Conditional

Updated: Jun 13

The second conditional is used to talk about hypothetical situations in the present and future. It is part of the unreal mood in English, which means it is used to discuss things that are either impossible, not likely, or that have a chance of maybe or maybe not happening. The situations only exist in your mind. If you're trying to visualize the second conditional, imagine someone who is simply thinking about the possibility of something and the potential courses of action in a particular situation. The big question that the second conditional plays with is "WHAT IF...?"

"What if you had more free time?"

"What if we could reverse global warming?"

"What if you weren't living where you are now?"

"What if you won the lottery?"

"What if your co-worker offered to pay for your lunch?"

"What if you changed your job?"

"What if you tried to do something different?"

"What if people were always honest with others?"

"What if you were me?"


Two other ways to frame this question are:


"What would you do if...?"

"What would happen if...?"


Here are a couple of example questions with these structures:

"What would you do if you got a large phone bill next month?"

"What would happen if the world economy suddenly crashed?"


Before we continue, let's take a quick look at the structure of the second conditional:

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Grammar check

The second conditional uses the following structure:

If clause + result clause

If + subject + past simple verb, subject + would/could/might (not) + bare infinitive


These clauses can be inverted.

"If I had more free time, I would take piano lessons." / "I would take piano lessons if I had more free time." (note how you only use the comma if the "if" clause is first)


*Another way to think of "would" with the second conditional is as another form of "will." Both words focus on intent and what someone intends or promises to do in a particular situation. For instance, "If anyone ever tried to fight me in public, I would defend myself." (This would be my intention in that situation, or a promise that I am making right now)


*Another way to think of "could" with the second conditional is to say "would be able to," as in "If I had more free time, I would be able to take an evening class" or "If I had more free time, I could take an evening class." This means I would have the ability to do something if the condition were met.


*Another way to think of "might" with the second conditional is to say "would maybe," as in "If I weren't living in Canada, I would maybe still be in Poland" or "If I weren't living in Canada, I might still be in Poland."


When using the second conditional in spoken English, "would" is often contracted. Note the following:

I'd, you'd, he'd, she'd, it'd (sounds like id-uhd), we'd, they'd (plus always, never, or other adverb of frequency)


If you want to use "would not," the contractions above are not used. Use these instead:

I wouldn't, you wouldn't, he wouldn't, she wouldn't, it wouldn't, we wouldn't, they wouldn't

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Now, let's look at some of the various usages of the second conditional with these things in mind. High frequency sentences and phrases are highlighted in yellow. Try to commit these to memory!


Impossible scenarios

"If I were your dad, I wouldn’t allow you to do that." (I'm not your dad and I never will be.)


"If unicorns were real, everybody would want one." (Unicorns aren't real. Unfortunately.)


"They’d eat us alive if they could!" ("They" could refer to ants or other animals. You choose!)


Oral practice: What would you do if you knew the world was ending tomorrow?


Unlikely scenarios

"The government would take all of my money if they could get away with it." (The government will probably never take all my money, and there are laws that prevent them from doing this. "To get away with something" means to successfully do something bad without being punished or criticized for it. This phrasal verb and usage is included in my book, 100 Practical English Phrasal Verbs.)


"If I won the lottery, I would invest half of it." (I will probably never win the lottery.)


"You wouldn’t say those things if you knew the truth." (also: “I don’t think you would say…”) (The person you're talking to doesn't know the truth, but if they did, they wouldn't say the things they're saying.)


Oral practice: If someone offered to buy you a ticket to travel anywhere in the world this weekend, where would you want to go?


Maybe/Maybe not scenarios (a plan or proposal that hasn’t been 100% decided or committed to yet. You are just considering different possibilities)

"That would be great/nice/cool/etc." (If that scenario happened, it would be great/nice/cool/etc., but we haven't 100% decided or committed to it yet.)


"It would be great/nice/cool/etc. if…" (finish with your own idea, remember to use past simple)


"Don’t you think it would be great/nice/cool/etc. if…?"


"Wouldn’t it be great/nice/cool/etc. if…?"


"I would never say that." (I have never said what you are accusing me of saying, and I would never say it in any situation.)


"She would never know." (If we didn't tell her our plan, she would never know. We haven't committed 100% to the plan yet and are just discussing it as a possibility.)


Oral practice: It would make me happy if…(finish with your own idea)


Now that we have a general idea of how the second conditional works, let's look at some of its usages. Below, you will find some common example sentences and structures. Practice them, and complete some with your own ideas.


Advice

"I wouldn’t do that if I were you." (It's impossible for me to be you)


"If I were you, I’d…"


"If I were in that situation, I would..."


"What would you do in my shoes?" (What would you do if you were me?)


"How would you go about it?" (go about it = handle it/manage it/do it)


"If you asked me, I’d say..."


Oral practice: Jack’s been feeling really stressed at work lately. What would you do if you were him?


Present and future wishes with "I wish..." (after "I wish," use subject + would + bare infinitive to express annoyance, dissatisfaction, or impatience with someone's actions)

"I wish you would stop doing that." (What you're doing is annoying me. I want you to stop. The implied condition is "If I had one wish, I would wish for you to stop doing that.")


"She wishes you’d call her more often." (You don't call her enough. Call her more often!)


"I wish you would leave me alone!" (I want you to leave me alone! If I had one wish, I would wish for you to leave me alone!)


Oral practice: What is something you wish would stop happening in the world?


Other common second conditional sentences

"If I didn’t know any better, I’d say…"(This is a humorous or sarcastic thing to say. It means "I expected this." For example, "If I didn't know any better, I'd say today is a great day to go swimming." This means it is a great day to go swimming, and I told you it would be a great day for it even though you didn't believe me before.)


"I wouldn't know." (If you asked me, I wouldn't know. Imagine someone asking you "What's the best way to get to Atlanta from here?" You can answer with "I don't know" or "I wouldn't know" in this case. It's similar to saying "I don't know why you're asking me or assuming that I would know the answer to a question like that.")


"I wouldn’t know what to say." (If I were in that situation, I wouldn’t know what to say. Don't put me in a situation where I would have to speak and feel uncomfortable.)


"I would if I could." (I'm not in a situation where I can do that. Common extension: "I would if I could, but I can't.")


"I would never do that." (Similar to "I would never say that" in the examples above.)


"You wouldn't!" (I don't think or believe you would do that if you were given the chance! For example, "I'll tell your mom that you lied about your diploma if you don't let me borrow your car this weekend." "You wouldn't!")


Common learner questions


If I'm using the verb to be in the "if" clause, do I have to use "were" with every subject?

Grammatically, "If I/he/she/it were" is the correct option when using the second conditional (even though the simple past conjugation for these subjects is "I/he/she/it was.") However, "If I/he/she/it was" is common in spoken English for the second conditional. This is a situation where most native speakers don't know the rule and use "was" and "were" interchangeably.

A safe usage rule: Use "were" if you're writing for work or school, try to use "were" in conversation, but don't worry too much if you use "was" in conversation because most native speakers don't worry about it either.


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I hope this post has expanded your understanding of the second conditional. I want this to be a living document, so if you have questions that you would like answered about anything above, or the second conditional general, OR if you have usages or exceptions that you think should be included in this post, please tell me in the comments. I would like the common questions section at the bottom of the to grow over time. My goal is to make this the ultimate second conditional resource on the internet! Check back from time to time to see how it has evolved.


Until next time, I wish you success in your studies!

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