Second Conditional


If + Simple Past + ,
(If-Clause)
would + base form
(Result Clause)
If I had the money, I would buy a car.
OR
would + base form
(Result Clause)
If + Simple Past
(If-Clause)
I would buy a car if I had the money.


The second conditional is used for hypothetical or contrary-to-fact situations. The if-clause establishes an unreal condition. We are talking about something that does not exist. We use the simple past tense to show that we are speaking about something in the present that is unreal, imaginary, impossible, hypothetical, etc. In the example above, I do not have the money I need to buy a car.

The second conditional uses the simple past in the if-clause and would in the result clause. Although would is the most common form in the result clause, could and might are also used.

We can begin the sentence with the if-clause or the result clause. If the sentence begins with the if-clause, we use a comma after it (as in this sentence). If the if-clause comes at the end of the sentence, we do not use a comma before it.

Would indicates certainty.

If + Simple Past + ,
(If-Clause)
would + base form
(Result Clause)
If I had the money, I would buy a car.
OR
would + base form
(Result Clause)
if + Simple Past
(If-Clause)
I would buy a car if I had the money.

Could indicates possibility or ability.

If + Simple Past + ,
(If-Clause)
could + base form
(Result Clause)
If I had the money, I could buy a car.
OR
could + base form
(Result Clause)
if + Simple Past
(If-Clause)
I could buy a car if I had the money.

Might indicates doubt or uncertainty.

If + Simple Past + ,
(If-Clause)
might + base form
(Result Clause)
If I had the money, I might buy a car.
OR
might + base form
(Result Clause)
if + Simple Past
(If-Clause)
I might buy a car if I had the money.

Formal English and Standard American English use were for all persons of the verb be in the if-clause, although was is common in informal speech.

Remember: Never use would in the if-clause!

We can use could in the if-clause when referring to hypothetical ability.

Marianne Celce-Murcia and Diane Larsen-Freeman divide these conditionals, which they call "imaginative," into two groups:1

Hypothetical conditionals refer to unlikely but possible events or states.

Counterfactual conditionals refer to impossible events or states.

They point out that the if-clause in a hypothetical conditional is not strongly negated (the situation could change) and can therefore be further weakened with should or happen to2.

The if-clause in a counterfactual conditional is, however, strongly negated (the situation cannot change because we are dealing with an impossibility). Thus we cannot further weaken the conditional with should or happen to3.

1, 2, 3Marianne Celce-Murcia and Diane Larsen-Freeman, The Grammar Book, 2nd ed., p. 551

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This page was last modified on 06/15/10

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