Second and Third Conditionals

Second and Third Conditionals

In English, conditional forms are composed of two separate clauses; an if clause and a result clause. We use the ‘if clause’ to say ‘If this happens….” (se questo succede …) and the ‘result clause’ is used to say ‘this will happen’ (… questo accadrà). The second and third conditionals can be called ‘unreal conditionals’ and this page explains how they are used.

Second Conditional

The second conditional is used to speak about the hypothetical consequences of future events which are unlikely, impossible or unrealistic in the opinion of the speaker. The ‘if’ clause describes the future event and the result clause explains the hypothetical consequence. We use a past tense verb in the ‘if clause’ of a 2nd conditional, but we are speaking about a hypothetical future event, not a past event. The thing we believe is unrealistic is the part in the ‘if clause’. The second part is the consequence if what we say in the ‘if clause’ is true.

Basic Construction
(If + subject + simple past verb) , (subject + would + verb infinitive.)
(Subject + would + verb infinitive) + (if + subject + simple past verb.)


  • “If I won the lottery jackpot, I would buy an Aston Martin.”

In the example above, the action in the ‘if clause’ is unrealistic, in my opinion. I never buy lottery tickets, so it is not possible for me to win the jackpot. So, ‘If I won the lottery’ is an unrealistic event. However, if it became true, ‘buy an Aston Martin’ is my intention.

  • “If I moved to America, I would live in San Diego.” (I have no plans to move to America.)
  • “If you applied for the job, I’m sure you would get it.” (I don’t believe you will apply for the job.)
  • “If I knew where Michelle Pfieffer lived, I would try to meet her.” (I don’t know where she lives.)
  • “If you worked harder, you would get promoted.” (You’re lazy. You never work hard.)

Could – Should

We can also talk about things that SHOULD or COULD happen in the same circumstances.

For example:

  • “If I won the lottery , I could buy an Aston Martin.” (I would have the ability/possibility to buy…)
  • “If I moved to the USA , I could live in San Diego.” (I would have the ability to live in many places..)
  • “If you work hard, you should get promoted.” (This would be the correct result/conclusion in my opinion, but it is not guaranteed)
  • “He said the traffic is very bad, but he should be here by 7.30pm.” (This is what we think is correct, It’s not guaranteed)

Polite/Formal forms…

When we offer advice or explain how we would act differently to the person we are speaking to, we use the form

You have decided to study Economics at university. I think this is a bad idea. My choice would be different.
“If I were you, I would study law. You never see a poor lawyer!”

Your company is almost bankrupt and I think it will close soon. You are not looking for a new job. My choice would be different.
“Your company is in trouble. If I were you, I’d look for another job.”

Third Conditional

We use the third conditional to talk about things that would be different in the present if something in the past different. We cannot change the past, so the third conditional always talks about impossible things. We often use the third conditional to express regret about actions in the past that the speaker would like to change. The ‘if’ clause describes the past event which did not happen, and the result clause explains the hypothetical consequences of the action.

Basic Construction
(If + subject + past perfect) , (subject + would + have + past participle)
(Subject + would + have + past participle) + (if + subject + past perfect)


  • “If I had known he was married, I wouldn’t have gone to dinner with him.” (I didn’t know he was married, so I went to dinner with him.)
  • “You would have met my brother if you had come to my party.” (You didn’t come to my party, so you didn’t meet him.)
  • “If I had studied harder at University, I could have been a Lawyer.” (I didn’t study hard, so I am not a Lawyer.)
  • “If I had moved to Madrid last year, I would have found a good job very quickly.” (Impossible; I didn’t move to Madrid, so I didn’t find a good job)
  • “If I had known you wanted to see the film, I would have bought some tickets” (I didn’t know….so I didn’t buy any tickets)
  • “If she hadn’t been late for work so often, she wouldn’t have been sacked.” (She was often late for work, so she did get sacked)

3rd conditional and modal verbs

In the 3rd conditional we can replace ‘would’ with ‘could’ or ‘might’. We use ‘could have….’ to talk about ability, and we use ‘might (not) have…’ to talk about a possibility.

For example;

  • “If I had studied art and drama at university, I could have become an actor.” (ability)
  • “If Chelsea had played more intelligently, they might have beaten Barcelona.” (possibility)

A different perspective

The third conditional is often used to explain things from a different perspective. For example…

We can say …. “I only know Maria is pregnant because Paul told me.”
Or we can say.. “If Paul hadn’t told me Maria was pregnant, I wouldn’t have known.”

We can say …. “The police only stopped you because you were driving too fast.”
Or we can say.. “If you hadn’t been driving so fast, the police wouldn’t have stopped you.”

We can say …. “You failed your exams because were lazy.”
Or we can say.. “If you had studied harder, you would have passed your exams.”

We can say …. “You failed your exams because were lazy.”
Or we can say.. “If you had studied harder, you would have passed your exams.”