Unreal (imaginary) or improbable (not likely to be true or happen) situations

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Second Conditional

“If I had a million dollars, I would give it to my favorite English teacher.”

We use the second conditional to talk about unreal (imaginary) or improbable (not likely to be true or happen) situations.

Remember, the first conditional describes a more real chance that something will happen. The first conditional is formed by “If” + the condition (simple present) + result (will + base verb). For example: If it rains, I will stay home.

First Conditional: If I have enough money, I will go to Japan. (This describes a real possibility - if subject has enough money, he or she is going to go to Japan).

Second Conditional: If I had enough money, I would go to Japan. (This describes a less probable situation – the subject implies that he or she doesn’t and will not have enough money to go to Japan).

First conditional: “If I become president, I will change the social security system.” Said by a presidential candidate. (A presidential candidate has a really chance to actually become the president, therefore we use the first conditional).

Second conditional: “If I became president, I would change the social security system.” Said by a schoolboy. (At the moment the it is very improbable that the schoolboy would become a president).

Additional Examples of when to use the Second Conditional:

  • If I were you, I would drive more carefully. (This situation is unreal because I am not you, and I never will be you, therefore we use the second conditional).

  • If dogs had wings, they could (or would be able to) fly. (Dogs don’t have wings, so this is an unreal situation).

  • If I knew her name, I would tell you. (I don’t know her name, so I can’t tell you – unreal situation).

Remember: modals are always followed by the base form of a verb!!!
How to form the Second Conditional:

If + condition (simple past) + result (modal + base verb).

Result (modal + base verb) + if + condition (simple past).

  • If I married Ryan Gosling, I would be very happy.

  • I would be very happy if I married Ryan Gosling.

  • If I were a rich man, I would buy a new house. *“to be” is always “were”, for all subjects.

  • If I had a dog, I would take it for a walk everyday.

  • She wouldn’t marry him if he were poor.

We can use the modals “would”, “could”, and “might” in the second conditional.

  • We use to would to express intent. Would is also the most commonly used modal in the second conditional.

  • We use could to express ability. Ability is the mental, physical, or financial power or skill needed to do something. Another way to think about “could” is to think “would be able to”.

  • We use might to express a possibility.

The modal that is used (would, could, or might), depends on the context and meaning of the sentence. Sometimes you can use more than one modal in a sentence, however, the modal will impact the meaning of the sentence.

In this sentence “If I won one million dollars, I _____ stop working”, all three modals work, however the meaning is changed for each one.

  • If I won one million dollars, I would stop working. (= If won one million dollars, I intend to stop working.)

  • If I won one million dollars, I could stop working. (= If I won one million dollars I would have the (financial) ability to stop working.)

  • If I won one million dollars, I might stop working. (=If I won one million dollars, maybe I would stop working, maybe I would continue to work. Both options are possibilities.)

  • I might attend paries more often if I enjoyed them more.

  • If I earned more money at my job, I could travel more often.

  • If I traveled more often, I might learn another language.

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