I am not a millionaire. If I was a millionaire, I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog about the second conditional. I’d be lying on a beach somewhere, sipping an exotic cocktail. So lucky for you I’m not a millionaire!
English language students are often confused by the rules of conditional sentences. It’s true that the grammar rules can be a bit difficult to get your head around. In this blog post, I will look at the form and use of the second conditional. How do we use it in the real world, not just the classroom? I will also give you some study tips that make learning grammar easier than you think. Let’s get going!
Second Conditional - Form
To make sentences in the second conditional we use this structure:
If + subject + past simple, subject + would + infinitive of main verb
If I was a millionaire, I would be lying on a beach somewhere.
If Simon had a good job, he would live in a nice house.
If Barbara lived in London, she would take the tube to work.
Second conditional - Positive sentences
To form a positive sentence using the second conditional we use:
If + past simple, would + infinitive
To make negative sentences in the second conditional we often use both verbs in the negative form:
If + subject + past simple negative, subject + would + not + infinitive of main verb
If I wasn’t a millionaire, I would not be lying on a beach.
If Simon didn’t have a good job, he wouldn’t live in a nice house.
If Barbara didn’t live in London, she wouldn’t take the tube to work.
Second conditional - Negative sentences
To form a negative sentence using the second conditional we use:
If + past simple negative, would not + infinitive
To make questions in the second conditional we use this structure:
If + subject + past simple, would + subject + infinitive of main verb
If you were a millionaire, would you be lying on a beach somewhere?
If Simon had a good job, would he live in a nice house?
If Barbara lived in London, would she take the tube to work?
Second conditional - Questions
To form a question using the second conditional we use:
If + past simple, would + subject + infinitive
When do we use the second conditional?
To talk about the present
We generally use the second conditional when we imagine the present to be different from how it is now.
For example: I am not a rich man. If I imagine being rich I can say:
If I was a rich man, I would buy a castle.
This is not reality. I am just imagining being rich.
In our second example we can say:
If John was on holiday, he would be camping in the mountains.
This sentence tells us that John is not on holiday but when he goes on holiday he camps in the mountains. In this sentence we are imagining that John is on holiday now.
In our third example, we can say:
If Susan had any free time, she would watch a film.
We use the second conditional in this sentence because we are speaking about an unreal situation. Susan does not have any free time. She is working at the moment.
To talk about the future
We can also use the second conditional to imagine the future will be different to how we think it will be. For example, if it is unlikely that the sun will shine tomorrow I could say:
If the sun shone tomorrow, I would go for a walk.
This sentence suggests that the sun won’t shine tomorrow and I won’t go for a walk.
Here’s another example:
If I went to China on holiday next year, I would visit the Great Wall.
This sentence suggests that I won’t go to China on holiday next year and I won’t visit the great wall. I am imagining a situation where I go to China next year and I visit the Great Wall.
Second conditional with 'could' and 'to be able to'
We sometimes use the modal verb could instead of would with the second conditional. This communicates ability in an imaginary or hypothetical situation.
For example, we can say:
If he saved money, he could buy a new car.
In this sentence we use the second conditional because John is not saving money at the moment. We are imagining a situation in which John saves money.
Here is a second example:
If Susan was at home now, we could ask her to help us.
In this sentence we use the second conditional because Susan is not at home at the moment and she cannot help us. We are using the modal verb could to emphasize the ability to ask Susan for help in the hypothetical situation where she is at home.
Here is a third example:
If John practiced the piano everyday, he could improve.
We use the second conditional because John does not practice the piano. We are speaking about a hypothetical situation.
We can also use the structure would be able + to + infinitive to communicate ability in the second conditional. Here is an example:
If Laura was in France, she would be able to practice French every day.
This sentence means Laura is not in France and is not able to practice French every day. We can also say:
If Laura was in France, she could practice French every day.
These sentences have the same meaning.
Here is another example:
If Sue had a car, she could drive to the airport.
If Sue had a car, she would be able to drive to the airport.
Both of these sentences have the same meaning. We are imagining that Sue has a car.
Second conditional with 'might'
We can also use the second conditional with the modal verb might. When we use might with the second conditional it expresses possibility. Here is an example:
If I was rich, I might buy a castle.
This suggests the possibility of buying a castle. Maybe I would buy a castle, but I could buy a modern house or a boat or nothing at all.
Here is another example:
If Sue was good at mathematics, she might study computer science.
This suggests the possibility of studying mathematics. Sue could also study business or languages or nothing at all.
Here’s a study tip! Take one example of a second conditional sentence and compare it to your own language. Translate the English sentence directly (word for word) into your own language. This will help you realize the difference between English and your own language.
Here is an example of a second conditional sentence translated word for word from German into English:
If I would be rich, I would buy a castle.
In the German language the word for would (würde) is used twice in the second conditional. Many Germans make this mistake when they speak English. If we recognize the difference between our own language and English it can help us fix our mistakes. Of course in English we say:
If I was rich, I would buy a castle.
It’s a good idea to memorize an easy second conditional sentence like the one above. This means when you want to use the second conditional you will have a sentence that reminds you of the grammar rules. This is easier and less abstract than remembering the rules. You can do this with every grammar structure. See how quickly your grammar improves!
Sipping /to sip: To drink a small amount of liquid
Tip: 1. A piece of advice 2. A gratuity, some extra money given in thanks for a service
The tube: Colloquial name for the London Underground train system
To get going: 1. To leave, to depart. Example: The train is leaving in 10 minutes. We’d better get going if we don’t want to miss it. 2.To start taking some action. Example: I’ve got to study a lot for the exam. I’d better get going or I’ll fail it!
Can’t get your head around something: unable to understand something/ unable to make sense of something Example: I can’t get my head around the tax system in Ireland. It’s so complicated!