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The second conditional

Updated: Mar 17

People love talking about hypothetical situations. If we want to talk about a present or future situation that we think is unlikely to happen, we use the second conditional.


I love teaching this structure for many reasons:

  • It is so useful.

  • My students don't get it quite right but they still manage to communicate.

  • The practice sentences that my students think of are often funny.

I always understand my students but they don't say things the way that an English speaker would. Why is this? Why is the second conditional so difficult to produce in spoken language? And what is it that students get 'wrong'? Have a think and then continue to read.


Why is the second conditional difficult?

In my experience, students use conditionals in the right situations but don't use the correct form. Many of my students are German speakers and they translate conditional structures from their first language rather than following the English pattern.


What are the common mistakes?

People tend to use would in both clauses. Although there are probably occasions when this is appropriate, most of the time it is not.

Don't say

If I would see a bear in the forest, I would hide.

Do say

If I saw a bear in the forest, I would hide.

Sometimes people forget about the commas but that isn't a big problem.


Forming the second conditional


If + past, would + inf


Option 1

If I saw a bear, I would talk loudly to try to scare it away.


Option 2

I would talk loudly if I saw a bear.

The tricky bit

The bit that is tricky for students is using a past verb in the if clause. Our brains don't like the idea of using a past tense to talk about the future, but that's the way we form the second conditional in English. Because it seems counter-intuitive, it needs a lot of practice.


How to practice the second conditional

How many questions can you think of to practice using the second conditional? If you need some help, look at a list of verbs in one of your course books and choose some past simple forms to use with the if clause, such as lost, found, saw, told, broke and wanted.

These can be used to make questions such as:


1. What would you do if you lost your phone?

2. What would you do if you found £100

3. What would you do if you saw a bear in the forest?

4. What would you do if someone broke your favourite cup?

5. What would you say if your best friend told you that she was moving away?

6. How would you feel if you failed your driving test?


You can also make sentences using negative forms.


1. What would you do if your children didn’t do their homework?

2. How would Sarah feel if Jack didn’t feed her cat.

3. How would the cats feel if Jack didn’t feed them?

Remember to make full sentences for your answers so that you can practice both parts of the sentence.


Tip

The more you practice, the better - as long as the sentences you practice are right! Try to practice five sentences a day for a week - always checking that you are using a past verb form in the if clause. At the end of the week, you might have mastered this tricky part of the English language.


Is this structure useful in Cambridge exams?

Absolutely. The examiners will be impressed if you use a second conditional in the speaking test.


Do you want to learn more about grammar? Click here to go to the grammar index.