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Conditional Sentences: "Unreal" Situations.

Updated: Dec 15, 2022

In this post we will look at the Second Conditional and Third Conditional which deal with unreal, hypothetical situations where we still want to state the outcome to a condition, even though the condition either won't, or can't be fulfilled.

If you have spent any time in a language school, you'll know the second conditional from the typical question "If you won the lottery, what would you do?" and the hypothetical answer "If I won the lottery, I would buy a big house...".

Second Conditional: Often called the "unreal" conditional because it is used for unreal impossible or improbable situations. This conditional provides an imaginary result for a given situation. It is very unlikely that the condition will be fulfilled.


if + Simple Past, + would + base verb.

If I had a million Euros, I would buy a large house.

A good example of the Second Conditional is in the song 'The Man' by Taylor Swift - I've linked a performance by Taylor Swift below, the song starts at 2:32. The whole song is about what would happen, If she was a man... Have a listen to hear what she would do/be, and remember, "I would..." is often shortened to "I'd...".

A second musical example, is Cher in the song "If I could turn back time...". She is reflecting on regrets that she had in the past, and what she would do if she could turn back time.

Now, we know that Taylor Swift suddenly changing gender, or Cher being able to turn back time are extremely unlikely or impossible to happen, but what about conditions that could be fulfilled, but the speaker is simply treating them as ideas; For example, Imagine that the woman in the picture below is stuck in a job that she doesn’t like, but for whatever reason, isn’t able to change jobs. What might she be thinking here?

If I found a job that I liked, I would be much happier…

if I started my own company, I would only work three days a week”…

if I didn’t have to work at all, I would travel the world…”

Because we know that these conditions are unlikely to be fulfilled, we use the Second Conditional to express them.

Another example is giving advice to someone who we know won't take it; Imagine we know the man below, he lives a relatively unhealthy lifestyle but is unwilling to change anything about his lifestyle. If we were to give him advice that we know he wouldn’t take, then we could use the second conditional to show the hypothetical outcome of any condition related to the advice.

if you actually stopped smoking, you wouldn’t be so out of breath all the time”.

If you watched less television, you would be able to spend more time reading books”.

If you started eating healthier, you would lose some weight”.

He doesn’t care, as he doesn’t want your advice, but that doesn’t stop you from being able to express what could happen if certain conditions were fulfilled.

Practice exercises: answer the following questions using the second conditional to express that they are not actually going to happen…

  1. What would you do if you were president? Example answer: If I was president, I would make all education free.

  2. If you could go on holiday anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would you go?

  3. If you could live in another country, where would you live?

  4. If you could cure one illness in the world, which illness would you cure?

  5. If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?

  6. If you could have any job or occupation in the world, what job would you like?

  7. If you could change one thing about the world today, what would you change?

Third Conditional: This is used to talk about the hypothetical outcome to situations that occurred in the past. As we refer to the past, we know that it is impossible for the outcome to come true. Unless of course you have a time machine and can go back in time to change the past, in which case I’ll update these materials.


if + Past Perfect, + would + have + Past Participle.

If I had been born in Germany, I would have learnt German at school.

Example: Okay, this might seem like a slightly extreme example, but it’s such a well known world event, with such obvious consequences that it makes a useful introduction. How would the world be different if Sept 11th had not happened?

If the World Trade Centre had not been attacked, so many people would not have died”.

If Sept 11th had not happened, the world trade centre would have not been destroyed”.

"If Sept 11th hadn't happened, the 'war on terrorism' wouldn't have happened.

Right, a bit lighter this time…. What might the driver of this car be thinking now?

If I hadn’t missed the turn, I would not have crashed into the swimming pool”.

If I hadn’t crashed into the swimming pool, I would have gotten to work on time”.

If I had gotten to work on time, I would not have been fired…”.

Practice exercises: answer the following questions using the Third Conditional to show that they relate to past events that cannot be changed.

1. If you hadn’t started learning English, which language would you have chosen?

Example answer: If I hadn't started learning German, I would have studied French instead.

2. If you had been born 100 years ago, how would your life have been different?

3. If you had chosen a different location for your last holiday, where would you have picked?

4. If you had lived in medieval times, what would you have done for work?

5. If there hadn’t been a pandemic, what would you have done during that time?

6. If you hadn’t started working for your current company, what would you have done instead?

7. Think of a major historical event in your country. What would have happened, if the event had not have happened?

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