Unreal Conditionals

Conditionals - Lesson #3

Conditional sentences have two parts – a condition and a result.

Unreal conditionals are similar to real conditionals, but with unreal conditionals, the condition is not true and not real. Or it is very unlikely to happen or be true.

We are just imagining what we would do in a situation that is not real or very unlikely to be real.
  • If this shirt were on sale, I would buy it.
    (Really, the shirt is not on sale and I will not buy it.)

  • If I were an animal, I would be a lion.
    (Really, I am not an animal.)
Here are some examples of when we might use an unreal conditional for a highly unlikely thing.
  • If I won the lottery, I would buy a house and a car.
    (The probability of winning the lottery is so low that we use the unreal conditional.)

  • If I met the President, I would want to tell him to lower taxes.
    (The chances of me meeting the President are very low.)
We can use unreal conditionals in the present, past, and future tense.

Let's go over unreal conditionals for each tense. Remember that we can also mix tenses, but we will study this more in a different lesson.

Present and Future Unreal Conditionals

These conditionals talk about what we would do in an unreal situation. We are just imagining or thinking about it. It is not real or it is very unlikely to be real.

If/When + condition + (then) result
Result + if/when + condition

The condition is in the past tense. Use "would/could/might/may + verb" for the result in the future or present tense.
  • If I didn't have to work, I would go hiking every day.
  • If she had more time, she would learn English.
  • They would come if it were possible. But sadly, it is impossible for them to come.
  • I wish this car were cheaper. If it were cheaper, I would buy it in a second.
  • If there were another way, I would not quit my job, but I don't think there is another way.
  • I could move to Canada if I spoke English better.
  • She might like me if I were more handsome.
Note: Only use "if" to give the condition for present and future unreal conditionals. Do not use "when". We can only use "when" with real conditionals.

We do not use "was" with unreal conditionals. Use "were" with every subject.
  • If I were a millionaire, I would live in London.
  • If she were nicer, then I would invite her to my party, but she is not nice and I do not want her at my party.
We can also use continuous forms with these conditionals.
  • If I were working there, I would quit.
  • If I were in Europe, I would be drinking an espresso in a café right now.
  • She would be going to the beach this weekend if she weren't working.
Future Unreal Conditionals – 2 other ways

Future unreal conditionals can look the same as present unreal conditionals. But there are two different ways to make future unreal conditionals. This is just like when we use the present continuous or "going to + verb" to talk about the future.

If/When + condition + (then) result
Result + if/when + condition

The condition uses the continuous forms (were + present participle / were going to + verb). The result also uses the continuous form (would be + present participle).

A present participle is formed by adding "-ing" to the end of a verb.
  • If I were going on the trip next week, I would be taking time off work.
Past Unreal Conditionals

Past unreal conditionals are very important, but they can be difficult for English learners.

They are a little different than other conditionals. We use past unreal conditionals to talk about things that have already finished. The event or thing is finished, but we are imagining what we would or could do differently if we did it again or if it happened again.

It is like we are getting in a time machine and going back in time and doing something again, but changing one thing.

If/When + condition + (then) result
Result + if/when + condition

The condition is in the past perfect tense. For the result, use "would have + past participle", "could have + past participle", or "might/may have + past participle".
  • If I had studied harder, I would have passed the test. Unfortunately, I did not study hard.
  • We would have had a good time if you had come to the party.
  • If she had studied harder when she was in university, she could have become a doctor or lawyer.
  • They could have finished on time if you had helped them. Why didn't you help them?
  • She might have got the promotion if she hadn't gotten in that big fight with the manager.
We can also use the continuous verb forms in these conditionals.
  • They could have finished yesterday if they hadn't been arguing all day.
  • If she had been working hard, then she could have finished a long time ago.
  • If you had been paying attention, then you wouldn't have gotten in the accident.
Note: Only use "if" to give the condition for unreal conditionals. Do not use "when". We can only use "when" with real conditionals.

Unreal conditionals and real conditionals are extremely important, but there are many small differences that we need to remember. It is important that you spend enough time studying and practicing these sentences.

Remember that we can also mix tenses, but we will study this more in a different lesson.

Improve your English grammar and learn to speak fluently with this simple practice. Finish the sentences below and then practice making your own sentences. It is the best way to learn English quickly and properly!

If I won the lottery, I would _______________.
If I had more time today, then I would _______________.
She would _______________ if she _______________.
She would _______________ if her family _______________.
She would _______________ if her boyfriend _______________.
I would visit _______________ if I could travel anywhere in the world.
If I could speak English fluently, then I would _______________.
I wouldn't be studying English now if _______________.
I wouldn't have _______________ if _______________.
They could have _______________ if _______________.
He wouldn't have _______________ if _______________.