Conditional Subordinate Clauses
Real conditional describes a situation that can happen.
1. The verb in the first clause (the if clause) is in present simple.
2. The verb in the second clause (the then clause) is in...
a) present simple for facts or cause-effect relationships
- If you overcook vegetables, they lose their flavour.
b) modal present (can be, should/must be + passive) for permission or possibility
- If you finish your homework, you can play video games.
c) future simple for predictions or outcomes
- If this interview goes well, I’ll get the job.
Unreal conditional – present
Unreal conditional is another way of providing information. Instead of providing that information in a neutral way, it changes the tone to a wish, advice, or complaint.
The construction of present unreal conditional looks like past tense, but it's not. Putting "if" at the beginning changes things to unreal conditional. All the examples in this lesson are in present tense.
Neutral statement: The weather is not nice so we won't go for a walk.
Unreal conditional - wish/complaint: If the weather were nice, we would go for a walk.
- If the weather were nice = the weather is not nice
- we would go for a walk = we won't go for a walk
Note: BOTH statements provide the exact same information. BOTH are in present simple.
a) If I had* a billion dollars, I would buy an island.
- If I had $1 billion = I don't have $1 billion
- I'd be rich = I'm not rich
a) If I were* you, I wouldn’t do that!
- If I were you = I'm not you
- I wouldn't do that = don't do that
b) If we weren’t stuck in this awful traffic jam, we could make it to the meeting on time.
- If we weren't stuck in this traffic jam = we are stuck in this traffic jam
- we could make it to the meeting on time = we can't make it to the meeting on time
c) If I were you, I wouldn’t say that to the boss.
d) If I were you, I wouldn’t wear that to the meeting.
a) If my supervisor were* here, he would know what to do.
b) If your parents knew what you’re doing, they’d be furious!
We also use COULD + VERB:
a) If I could have any superpower, I would want to fly.
b) If I could go anywhere, I would go to Mars.
*Note: We use "were" because I am not you, so we don't say "If I am you." In these situations, "were" is NOT past tense – it is unreal conditional present.
Compare these sentence pairs:
a) Real Conditional: If I’m promoted, I will make many changes in company policy.
- Meaning: I have applied and might be promoted.
b) Unreal Conditional: If I were promoted, I would make many changes in company policy.
- Meaning: I have not applied and my statement represents advice/wishful thinking.
We often say:
- If I were the president, I would....
- If I won the lottery, I would...
a) Real Conditional: If you show up to class more often, you will get better marks.
- Meaning: A warning and an opportunity to improve
b) Unreal Conditional: If you showed up to class more often, you would get better marks.
- Meaning: You don't show up to class often enough. As a result, you get poor marks.
Unreal conditional – past
Unreal conditional (past) is often the language of regret. Unreal conditional (past) describes imaginary situations in the past:
1. If I had been there at the meeting, I could have properly explained how to fix the problem.
- Meaning: I wasn’t there. How to fix the problem was not properly explained.
2. He would not have quit his job if he’d thought there was any chance of smoothing things over with his boss.
- Meaning: He did quit his job. He didn’t think there was any chance of smoothing things over.
3. She would never have hit the bully if she’d believed the school would protect her.
- Meaning: She did hit the bully. She did not believe the school would protect her.
Note: Either half can go first.
1st half: Unreal conditional past looks like past perfect. There is only one form of the verb for all subjects.
- If I had been there,…
- If you had worn warmer clothes,…
- If they hadn’t eaten that old sushi,…
2nd half: Modal + have + 3rd form of verb (again, there is only one form of the verb for all subjects)
- …, I could have helped them.
- …, you wouldn’t have gotten frost bite.
- …, they wouldn’t have gotten food poisoning.
- …, I could have helped them. = I could’uv helped them
- …, you wouldn’t have gotten frost bite. = you would’en’uv gotten frost bite
Unreal conditional – past and present
Unreal conditional blends (past and present) describe the present consequences of past mistakes:
If I had been there at the meeting, we wouldn't have this problem now.
- Past unreal + present unreal
- Meaning: I wasn't at the meeting. As a result, we now have a problem.
Compare these sentence pairs:
Whether to use unreal present or unreal past depends on your meaning:
a) Past + present unreal: If I had been there, we wouldn't have this problem now.
b) Past + past unreal: If I had been there, we wouldn't have had this problem last week.
For the past, it doesn't make sense to say "if I had been you." We still use the present form "if I were you." Alternatively, you can say "if I had been in your shoes" (past unreal).
I can't believe you said that at the meeting yesterday. If I were you, I wouldn't have said that.
- present unreal, past unreal
I can't believe you said that at the meeting yesterday. If I had been in your shoes, I wouldn't have said that.
- past unreal, past unreal