The second conditional is a structure used in English grammar to talk about present or future situations that are unlikely to happen or are impossible. It is formed with 'if' + past simple, and would + infinitive (or could + infinitive). Let's delve into detail about when and how to use the second conditional.
Structure of the Second Conditional
The second conditional is made up of two clauses, the 'if' clause and the 'main' clause. It follows two types of structures:
- if + past simple,… would + infinitive
- would + infinitive…if + past simple
- If I won the lottery, I would buy a new car.
- I would buy a new car if I won the lottery.
It's important to note that the order of the sentences doesn't change the meaning. In the first example, the 'if' clause comes first, but in the second example, the 'if' clause comes second. Both sentences express the same situation and outcome.
Usage of the Second Conditional
Theoretical or Unlikely Situations
The second conditional is often used to express situations in the present or future that are hypothetical, imaginary or unlikely to occur. These are events that the speaker believes will probably not happen, but they like to imagine them. The second conditional is not used to express factual information.
- If I were a bird, I would fly to the tropical countries.
- If you saw a ghost, what would you do?
The second conditional is also used for giving advice about specific situations. This is particularly useful when suggesting what somebody should do, even though that person may not be currently considering the action.
- If I were you, I would study more.
- If he asked nicely, I would help him.
Important Points to Remember
Were vs Was
When using the second conditional, it is correct to use 'were' instead of 'was' after 'I' and 'he/she/it'. Both forms are commonly used, but in formal writing, 'were' is more appropriate.
- If I were rich, I would buy a mansion.
- If he were more understanding, she would tell him the truth.
Could and Might
In the main clause of a sentence, 'could' and 'might' can be used instead of 'would' for less certainty or formality.
- If you studied harder, you could pass the exam.
- If we left now, we might catch the early flight.
Contractions with Would
In spoken English and in informal writing, we often use contractions with 'would'. The form 'd is attached to the subject of the sentence.
- If I knew him, I’d say hello.
- She'd visit Paris if she had money.
Practise the Second Conditional
One of the best ways to become comfortable with using the second conditional is to practise it as much as possible. Here are some exercises you can use to familiarise yourself:
- Create your own sentences using the second conditional.
- Think about a situation that is unlikely to happen and describe what you would do.
- Create conversations with someone using the second conditional.
Lastly, remember that becoming proficient with the second conditional will require time and practice! Be sure to expose yourself to the structure in different contexts, both in writing and in conversation, and you will soon find you become more comfortable using it.