Language Focus: A review of the future real (first conditional) and present and future unreal conditional (second conditional). Includes practice exercises.
Worksheet Download: first-second-conditional-worksheet.docx (scroll down to study the exercises online)
Review: The First Conditional (Future Real)
The first conditional is also called the future real conditional. It is used to talk about real possibilities in the future.
Form: [ If + subject + present simple ] , (then) [ subject + will + verb ]
- If I finish my work, I will go home.
- If she needs help, then I will help her.
- If it rains tonight, I will stay home.
All these examples describe real possibilities in the future. The speaker thinks they can happen.
For example: You are watching a football game on TV. Your team is playing well. You want them to win. Is it possible that they will win? Yes, it’s very possible. It’s a real possibility for the future. So, we can say,
If my team wins, I will be happy.
It’s also possible that they will lose.
If my team loses, I will be angry.
That’s basically it: we use the first conditional for real possibilities in the future. Easy, isn’t it?
Review: The Second Conditional
The second conditional is used in two ways, but the grammatical form is the same for both.
Form: [ If + subject + past tense ] , (then) [ subject + would/could/might + verb ]
Let’s look at how we use it.
The Second Conditional for Future Unreal Events
The second conditional can also be called the future unreal conditional. It is used to talk about impossible or unlikely future events.
- If we had an earthquake tomorrow, I would be surprised. (the speaker doesn’t think this will happen)
- If someone jumped out of this window, they could die. (the speaker doesn’t think someone would do this)
- If the Internet stopped working, then people would go outside. (this speaker doesn’t think it will stop)
These are all events in the future that are impossible or very unlikely (there’s a low chance they will happen). When we use the second conditional to describe future events, we are saying that we don’t think the event will happen.
Let’s look at sentence #1. Now, if you live in Japan or a place with many earthquakes, it would be more possible for there to be an earthquake. If you thought it was a real possibility, you would say,
If we have an earthquake tomorrow, I will be scared. (First conditional — The speaker thinks this could happen.)
Now, if you live in Toronto, there is almost no chance of an earthquake. Here, it is not a real future possibility. Someone in Toronto would say,
If we had an earthquake tomorrow, I would be surprised. (Second conditional – the speaker thinks it’s not possible.)
Sometimes it’s obvious if something is a real possibility or not. At other times, it can depend on our mood or attitude. Here’s another example.
Lisa buys lottery tickets every week. She thinks she will win one day. She says,
If I win the lottery, I will buy a house.
John hardly ever buys lottery tickets. He knows it’s almost impossible to win. He says,
If I won the lottery, I would buy a house.
Because he’s using the second conditional, we know that John doesn’t think it’s a real possibility.
In summary, it can depend on mood, but usually it’s fairly clear if something is a real possibility for the future or not. Before I explain the next way we use the second conditional, let’s try some exercises to see if you understand.
Important Note: The Condition and Result Clause Can be Switched
The condition clause is the part of the sentence that starts with IF. For example, “If I pass the test, …“. The result clause explains what will happen if this condition is true. For example, “I will celebrate.”
If I pass the test, I will celebrate.
[ condition ] + [ result ]
In any conditional sentence, the result can also come before the condition. The grammar rules for each clause stay the same. When this happens, we don’t use a comma.
I will celebrate if I pass the test. (no comma)
[ result ] + [ condition ]
There is no difference in meaning between these two sentences.
Exercise #1 – Future Real or Future Unreal Conditionals
First, practice identifying the first and second conditional forms. All you have to do is write correct verb.
- If you invite her, she (come) to the meeting.
- If it (snow) 60 centimetres, we wouldn’t be able to leave our house.
- If you ask Peter, he (not/refuse). You should ask him.
- She (not/marry) Lou if he asked her.
- I would be very surprised if the new company (succeed).
- Alan is busy. If he (have) time tonight, he would exercise. He’ll be too busy though.
- The passengers (not/be) happy if their flight is delayed.
Exercise #2 – Future Real or Future Unreal Conditionals
Look at the situations and decide if the action in the condition is a real possibility for the speaker or not. If it’s not a real possibility, use the second conditional. Otherwise, use the first.
- There are dark clouds in the sky. If it (rain), we (get) wet. Let’s go inside.
- John is driving his car. Traffic is worse than he expected. If he (not/arrive) home on time, his dinner (be) cold.
- Viviane is at the pet store. Her boy loves dogs and doesn’t like cats. If she (buy) a cat, her son (start) crying. So, she is going to buy a cute dog.
- Tara is tired. If she (go) to bed soon, she (not/be) tired tomorrow. However, she is going to stay up and watch a movie.
- Jason is hungry. He sees a slice of pizza in the refrigerator. He says to his sister, “Are you going to eat that slice of pizza? If you (not/want) it, I (eat) it.”
Now, it’s time to talk about the second way that we use the second conditional.
The Second Conditional for Present Unreal Events (Counter-factual)
Form: [ If + subject + past tense ] , (then) [ subject + would/could/might + verb ]
(The form is the same.)
We use this conditional, the present unreal conditional, to imagine things that are the opposite of reality. We use it to think about the opposite of the current situation or fact.
First, let’s look at some (present real) facts or truths.
- Playing football is fun.
- The earth is not flat.
- I cannot sing well.
Now, let’s imagine if the opposite of the above facts were true, and what effects that could have.
- If playing football were not fun, people would not play it.
- If the earth were flat, people might fall off of it.
- If I could sing well, I would sing karaoke more.
In other words, the opposite of these statements is always true. It’s called the unreal conditional because you are imagining an unreal (fictional) situation. If someone says, “If I were tall, I would play basketball“, then we know that they are not tall. If someone says, “If I had a million dollars, I would buy a boat.”, this means they do not have a million dollars. They are dreaming or imagining a situation that is the opposite of the truth.
Grammar note: Many people (including me) don’t use ‘was’ in conditionals. Instead, we use ‘were’. For example, If I were you, I wouldn’t do that. You can also use was, but some people might say it’s poor grammar.
Let me give you some facts. Then I want you to make conditional sentences by imagining the opposite situation.
Exercise #3 – The Present Unreal Conditional
(Note: To make it simple, please use ‘would’ instead of ‘might’ in these exercises. ‘Can’ can be changed to ‘could’.)
- Junk food is bad for your health. If it (be) healthy, people (eat) more of it.
- You only have two arms. If you (have) three arms, you (can/carry) more things.
- John dislikes his job. If he (like) his job, he (not/mind) waking up every morning.
- Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. If we (not/make) his mistakes, we (not/learn) anything.
- Tara lives in London. If she (not/live) in London, she (not/have) to pay such high rent.
Review of the Future Real, Future Unreal, and Present Unreal
We have learned the following:
1. The First Conditional (the Future Real) is used to talk about real possibilities in the future.
Lisa and John love each other. If they get married, they will buy a house. (They love each other. There is a real chance they will get married).
2. The Second Conditional is used for two situations:
a) Impossible or unlikely situations in the future.
Lisa and John hate each other. If they got married, they would fight a lot. (They don’t like each other, so they probably won’t get married).
b) Imagining situations that are the opposite of the present situation.
Lisa and John love each other. If they didn’t love each other, they wouldn’t spend time together. (Fact: They do spend time together)
Do you understand? The next exercise will be more challenging.
Exercise #4 – First or Second Conditional?
Read the statements below. Then make a conditional sentence based on it.
- I’m so busy. That’s why I don’t exercise. If I (not/be) busy, I (exercise).
- Sadly, the environment is being destroyed. If this (continue), more and more animal species (disappear).
- I don’t play sports. However, it’s only because I’m not in shape. If I (be) in shape, I (play) sports.
- I can’t do my job because my boss doesn’t explain things properly. If he (explain) things properly, I (be) able to do my job.
- Mohammed has applied to study abroad in Canada. If he (accept), he (study) in Vancouver.
- I can’t stop smoking. The problem is, I feel nervous all the time. If I (not/feel) nervous all the time, I (can/stop) smoking.
- It’s the middle of summer. It’s very hot. If it (snow) tomorrow, I (not/believe) it.
- You are not me. You don’t know how I feel. If you (be) me, you (know) how I feel.
- Your English will probably continue to improve. If it further (improve), you (feel) more confident.
- I’m so tired because I play video games every night. If I (not/play) video games so much, I (not/feel) so terrible every day.
Exercise #5 – Making Present Unreal Questions
We haven’t reviewed this, but try to take the below words and form a question in the second conditional (present unreal).
Note: be sure to add proper punctuation (e.g. commas, question marks)!
- (if / you / be the leader of your country / what / you / do) =
- (what / you / do / if / you / have more free time) =
- (if / you / can / go / anywhere in the world / where / you / travel) =
- (if / today / be / your last day on earth / what / you / do) =
- (you / wear / glasses / if / you / cannot / see / well ) =
That’s the end of the lesson. I hope this has been useful. If you find any mistakes, or you have a question, please leave a comment below.
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