Second Conditional in English — Advanced English Grammar [Updated]

Dec 9, 2020 | Conditionals in English, Grammar, Modal Verbs

This lesson on the Second Conditional in English has been updated.
The original lesson on this topic was published in November 2015.

I know one of your goals is to add variety to your English when you speak, to use more advanced grammar, to understand others, and respond easily in English.

That’s why I’m doing this lesson on the Second Conditional in English.

With this lesson, you’ll learn to use the Second Conditional. This conditional form can be the most challenging because we use it to talk about hypothetical (unreal) situations or events.

But it’s important because we use it to:

  • Give advice
  • Talk about unlikely/impossible situations
  • Imagine different future outcomes
  • Express regret or wish for a different reality

Most English classes and grammar books teach you the basic rules of conditionals, such as: If + past simple + would + infinitive

And certainly, that can be useful. But it doesn’t help you understand how to really use conditionals in your daily English life. So let’s change that.

Don’t forget to review the other lessons in this series:

How to Use the Second Conditional in English

If you completed the lesson on the First Conditional, then you know it is used in real situations/actions with a likely result. For example:

  • We will pay 3% more if you complete the project by next week. = this is a likely possibility

But the Second Conditional is for UNREAL or UNLIKELY situations in the present or future time.

  • If you completed this project by next week, we would pay 3% more. = it does not seem possible or likely that the company can complete the project by next week, so we won’t pay 3% more.

The use of “would” and the “past simple” change the meaning from REAL to UNREAL.

Using the Second Conditional for Unlikely & Impossible Situations

We use the Second Conditional to:

  • say what is impossible or unlikely
  • imagine a different present time or imagine a possible future time
  • express that we wish for a different reality

This is where the Second Conditional can be confusing. We use it to talk about unlikely, impossible, hypothetical, or imaginary present/future situations. For example:

  • I would exercise a lot more if I had time. (= I would like time to exercise more, but it isn’t likely that my schedule will change)
  • If their company had a better reputation, we would consider them for the contract. Their creative marketing proposal was great, but I never hear anything good about working with them. (= but it is unlikely we will consider them for a contract)
  • If I could, I would make conditional tenses disappear. (= but I can’t, it isn’t possible)
  • My commute to work would be so much shorter if I didn’t live outside the city limits! (= but I don’t live in the city so a shorter commute is impossible)

For the workplace, let’s imagine a negotiation: Two sides are negotiating but one side is unable to compromise:

We would have to cut some of our staff if we reduced our costs by 10%. I’m sorry but we just can’t do that. (= Perhaps the company would like to reduce their costs but it is not possible unless they want to lose some of their staff.)

Using the Second Conditional to Give Advice

We often use this form to give advice, especially if we want to be polite or professional.

If I were you, I would …*

*Do you notice the use of were with I, not was? This is the correct form of the Second Conditional when giving advice!

  • If I were you, I would be honest about what happened.
  • If I were you, I would study a little bit every day. You’ll be more likely to succeed on the exam if you do.
  • If I were you, I would tell them that we cannot negotiate on the costs – it just isn’t possible.

Using the Second Conditional for Conversation

Sometimes we use conditionals just for fun. No! I’m not joking.

We use conditionals to imagine something different. Maybe it’s a different future or something that is impossible. We even use these questions to get to know each other.

Here are some examples:

  • If you were president, what is one law you would change?
  • If you could go back to university, what would study?
  • If you could change your career, what would you be?
  • If you could travel anywhere in the world for a two-week vacation, where would you go?

Fun, right? 🙂


Grammar Structure Alternatives: Using Might and Could in the Second Conditional

Might or could can replace “would” in the second conditional. When these words are used, it can have a slight change of meaning:

  • would = impossible or unlikely
  • might = unlikely but possible
  • could = ability (would be able to)

Let’s look at some examples: Let’s imagine a company. Perhaps they provide a service but customers usually have to wait a very long time to receive the service. Some people are having a discussion about the company and this problem of response times:

  • If the company reduced its response times, they would have more customers. (= but it is unlikely that this will happen)
  • If the company reduced its response times, they might have more customers. (= it is unlikely but possible)
  • If the company reduced its response times, they could have more customers. (= they would be able to have more customers – this could be considered a suggestion or an idea to a problem. It still has the feeling that it is unlikely for anything to change, but it’s an option.)

Now I’d love to hear from you. Plus, you can get some practice and share your comments below for feedback.

I have three practice questions for you.

  • If you had more free time, what would you do?
  • If your friend at work made a huge mistake, what would you suggest?
  • If your boss wanted you to work all weekend, what would you say?

As always, the best place to share is in the comments section below.

Have fun and enjoy your week. ~ Annemarie

P.S. If this lesson was useful to you, share the love! You can easily share on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Pinterest. 

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