How to Use the Second Conditional in Real Life
This series on Using English Conditionals in Real Life has been updated. The original lessons on this topic were published in 2015 and 2016.
I’m happy you’re joining me for this lesson! 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.
And that’s why I’m doing this lesson series on Using English Conditionals in Real Life.
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 others lessons in this series:
Learn to use the right conditional every time.
Lesson by Annemarie
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.
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.)
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.
Just for Fun
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? 🙂
Using Might and Could
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 their response times, they would have more customers. (= but it is unlikely that this will happen)
- If the company reduced their response times, they might have more customers. (= it is unlikely but possible)
- If the company reduced their 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.
- Think about your personal or business life. Can you think of some examples when you wish for something that is impossible or unlikely? If you cannot think of your own examples, try to answer these:
- If you had more free time, what would you do?
- If you spoke English perfectly at this moment, what would you do (or could 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?
- Now could you provide some advice?
For example, I’m preparing 3 new English language guides for business English. Do you have any advice (or recommendations) for me?
- And finally, can you use would, might and could in different sentences and explain the slight difference in meaning? If possible, use an example from your real life or work situation.
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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