Unreal-Animals-photography-08

Unreal Conditionals

We use this kind of conditional when we talk about something that is not real: either something that is impossible or something that is imaginary or very unlikely.

We move the tenses back one step (sometimes called backshifting) to show this unreality.

 

So, when we are talking about the present, we use the past tense or past modals, and when we are talking about the past we use past perfect or modal with have + past participle. (We also use the past tense to talk about future unreal things, which is less logical for learners.)

The second and third conditionals are examples of unreal conditionals. We don’t use when with unreal conditionals.


Impossible things in the present

This can be one specific thing or things in general. We use the past simple in the if-clause, and would + infinitive in the main clause. This is the classic second conditional.

  • If I had enough money, I would buy a car. (But I don’t have enough money.)
  • If I knew her phone number, I would call her. (But I don’t know her phone number.)

We can use other past modals in the main clause, like should, could, might or ought to.

  • If I knew her number, I could call her.
  • If I knew her number, I might call her.

We can’t use modals that don’t have a past form, like must. Instead we use would have to.

  • If I was still at school, I would have to wear a uniform. NOT: If I was still at school, I must wear a uniform.

We can use were instead of was in the if-clause in formal English. (You should use this for exams!)

  • If he were president, he would raise taxes.
  • If it were summer, we could go to the beach.
  • If she were a student, she would live at the university.

However, it’s very common to use was. The only place that we see were in everyday speech is in the fixed expression “if I were you“.

  • If I were you, I wouldn’t eat all that chocolate.

When the verb in the if-clause is be, we can use were instead of was and drop if and invert were and the subject. This is very formal.

  • Were I rich, I wouldn’t do this job.
  • Were you the president, would you raise taxes?

Unlikely or impossible things in the future

This is another use of the classic second conditional. The choice between the first conditional and the future use of the second conditional is often about how certain the speaker feels.

We use if + past simple, would + infinitive.

  • If I had enough time next week, I would come and see you. (But I won’t have enough time.)
  • If she passed the exam, she could become a doctor. (But I don’t think that she will pass.)

We can use other past modals (in the same way as with impossible things in the present).

  • If I had enough time next week, I could come and see you.

 

We can also use were instead of was (in the same way as with impossible things in the present).

  • If it were July next month (and not December), we could go camping.

 

We can also use the unreal conditional to be polite, even if the conditional is likely to be fulfilled.

  • If you came early and helped me get ready, it would be really helpful.

 

In the same way that we can use will in the if-clause of real conditionals (when will means ´willing´, and not the future), we can also use would in the if-clause of an unreal present or future conditional. This is common in polite requests.

  • If you would help me, I’d be very grateful. (= if you were willing to help me.)

 

We can also use should in the if-clause – this suggests that the condition is very unlikely and is formal.

  • If they should agree to come, we would be delighted.

Even more formally, we can drop if and invert should.

  • Should they agree to come, we would be delighted.

 

We can also make the condition weaker by using happened to in the if-clause. And we can use should and happen to together.

  • If she happened to read the newspaper, she would see your article.
  • If she should happen to read the newspaper, she would see your article.

 

The structure be to can be used in future unreal conditionals. It is more formal, and it makes the speaker sound less certain that the usual use of the past simple. We use were for all subjects.

  • If she were to become a doctor, she would work in Canada. (I’m very uncertain that she’s going to become a doctor.)

This can be made even more formal by dropping if and inverting were.

  • Were she to become a doctor, she would work in Canada.

 


Other tenses with Unreal Present and Future Conditionals

We can use the past continuous in the if-clause.

  • If it was raining at 10 o’clock, we wouldn’t go to the park.

We can use were with the past continuous, instead of was.

  • If it were raining at 10 o’clock, we wouldn’t go to the park.

We can drop if and invert were with the past continuous. This is very formal.

  • Were it raining at 10 o’clock, we wouldn’t go to the park.

We can use a modal with a continuous infinitive in the main clause. This is more common with impossible things in the present.

  • If it were raining, we wouldn’t be going to the park. (In fact, we are going to the park now.)
  • If I knew her phone number, I wouldn’t be trying to reach her by email. (In fact, I am trying to reach her by email now.)

We can use a question in the main clause.

  • If you had a lot of money, what would you spend it on?

Past Unreal Conditionals

This is the classic third conditional. It’s usually used to talk about imaginary things in the past – things that didn’t happen. So, it’s often used to express regret.

We use the past perfect in the if-clause (back shifted one step from the real tense, which is the past simple) and we use would + have + past participle in the main clause (backshifted one step from a past modal).

  • If I had studied harder, I would have passed the exam. (But I didn’t study hard and so I didn’t pass.)

We can use continuous forms in both or either clause.

  • If I hadn’t been working, I would have gone to the party.
  • If I hadn’t been working, I would have been dancing at midnight.
  • If I had caught the plane, I would have been lying on the beach yesterday.

We can use different modal in the main clause, usually might or could.

  • If I hadn’t been working, I could have gone to the party.
  • If I had woken up earlier, I might have caught the plane.

You can use questions in the main clause.

  • If her car hadn’t broken down, what time would she have arrived?

We can drop if and invert had to make the conditional more formal.

  • Had you got up earlier, we wouldn’t have missed the plane.

We can also use the structure be to in unreal past conditionals. It is not very common. It makes the conditional less certain and is very formal. We use were for all subjects.

  • If she were to have thought about it a bit more, she wouldn’t have done that.

This can be made even more formal by dropping if and inverting were.

  • Were she to have thought about it a bit more, she wouldn’t have done that.

Mixing unreal conditionals

We can mix the times of the two clauses. Present unreal situation, past result. We can use the past simple in the if-clause (like the second conditional) and would + have + past participle in the main clause (like the third conditional) to talk about something that’s generally true but had a result in the past.

  • If she wasn’t French, she wouldn’t have moved to Paris.
  • If he wasn’t so lazy, he wouldn’t have failed the exam.
  • If I was rich, I would have been able to buy a new car.
  • If I could speak Spanish, I would have moved to Mexico.

Past unreal situation, present result.

We can use the past perfect in the if-clause (like the third conditional) and would + infinitive in the main clause (like the second conditional) to talk about something unreal in the past that has a result in the present.

  • If I had gone to bed earlier last night, I wouldn’t be so tired now
  • If she hadn’t spent all her money, she would be rich now.

 


Content primarily-sourced from the great website: perfect-english-grammar.com

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