How to use the second conditional

Ho wto use the second conditional

Welcome to today’s Lunchtime Lessons post. This week we are looking at the third conditional. Our Lunchtime Lessons are free Online English classes where we look at areas of English which are often difficult for students.

If you didn’t manage to join us for our live session, you can catch up with the highlights of the class below. If you’d like to join our live session for the chance to ask the teacher questions, you can book your place directly on our website. These classes are 100% free and are on Tuesdays at 12pm.

Welcome to today’s Lunchtime Lesson. We’re going to be continuing with our conditionals block that we started a couple of weeks ago. Today we’re going to be focusing on how to use the second conditional. If you missed our previous session about the first conditional, you can find the blog post to it here.

As I already said in the first conditional session, I find students tend to be obsessed with how to construct a conditional and forget to think about why we use a conditional. This is way more important because if we don’t think of the purpose of a structure like the conditional, you’re never going to be able to correctly apply those structures. 

There are four different kinds of conditionals. Each of these have a different function. Some of them are more commonly used than others. Very often when conditionals are outside of the classroom in an authentic context, they look quite different to the common structures that you are taught in your grammar books. This means, we have to think a little bit outside of the box. But don’t worry! I’m going to help you with this.

The classic second conditional

Let’s start talking about the second conditional. What is the purpose of it? The purpose of the second conditional is to express a hypothetical situation now or in the future. And remember, a conditional always has two aspects, a situation and a consequence to that situation. For example, winning the lottery would be a hypothetical situation. And buying a mansion would be a hypothetical consequence of this situation

As with the first conditional our situation is expressed with the IF clause, however, we don’t always use if in this clause. We sometimes use other structures that express the same. But more on that later. And then we have the second part with the consequence, which we call an auxiliary clause. Normally, we’ll see that described as would but there are many other ways to express would.

A grammar book will probably give you the following structure for the second conditional:
If + past simple / would + infinitive
To come back to our example sentence, it would look like this:
If I won the lottery, I’d buy a mansion.

Alternatives to the classic second conditional structure

But as with the first conditional there are many more ways than just the classic structure. I’ll give you some example sentences, which don’t follow the classic second conditional structure. Have a look at the examples below. What do you notice about those sentences? Think about what structure is used and how they are different from the classic second conditional structure.

Showing nalternatives to the classic second conditinal structure.

You probably noticed the following differences:

1. might instead of would 
2. past continuous instead of past simple / the adverb probably to add an aspect of speculation 
3. could instead of would to focus on possibility 
4. past continuous instead of past simple / the adverb definitely to speculate

With this in mind, I would adapt the structure for the second conditional as follows:
Situation clause: If + past continuous/past simple
Consequence clause: would/might/could + infinitive
You also can add words such as probably and definitely in the consequence clause to add more speculation to the sentence.

Here are some more examples of second conditional sentences. Think about what the word in bold is replacing.

Alternatives for the word if in a second conditional.

Hopefully you’ve noticed that in all of these sentences the words in bold replaces the word if.
Let’s look at those expressions again and consider the register and the tone of those changes.

By changing the word in a second conditional sentence you also change the tone and register of the sentence.

We’ve got lots of different ways here to construct our second conditional, which are much more varied and much richer in language than if you follow the commonly taught structure.


Let’s take a look at the last example, where we used the word were. By using the word were we made the sentence sound much more formal. We’ve done that by applying an inversion with were. This is not that complicated to produce once you get the hang of it. It is actually a very easy thing to do. And it’s something that’s going to have a really big effect on your formal writing, it is going to make it much more elegant.

Here is another example sentence:
If he pushed the button, we’d all have problems.
If we wanted to use an inversion in this example, we have to replace if with were and instead of the past tense we use the infinitive.
Were he to push the button, we would all have problems.

But what do you need to do if you already have was in your classic second conditional like in the next example?
If I was more organised, I would be a better student. 
All you have to do is replace the if with were and eliminate the was. The result would be: 
Were I more organised, I would be a better student.


Sometimes my students say that they can’t remember the structure and how to change it when speaking hypothetically in English. A good way to think about it is back-chaining. What I mean by that is that you’re always taking a step backwards. If I want to speak hypothetically about the present, I’m going to go back one step in time to express that hypothetical situation.

For example: If I win, I will call you. 
That’s a possible or likely situation. If I want to make that hypothetical, I take a step back in time and change it into the past as follows: If I won, I would call you.

Now, the sentence is hypothetical in the present. If I wanted to speak hypothetically in the past I need to take a step further into the past. Which would be: If I had won, I would have called you. 
This would be the third conditional. We’ll be talking about this in a few weeks’ time. The back-chaining rule works for any hypothetical structure, even with imagine and supposing.

Contractions in second conditional structures

A very important point as always is pronunciation. When producing the second conditional we need to contract the auxiliary would. If I have the sentence: If I won the lottery, I would buy a car, you’re never going to hear an L1 speaker of English in a fluent conversation say I would buy. They’re going to contract this. That means they’re going to say I’d buy a car.

Please remember that when we are writing contractions, we only contract on a pronoun. So, if I have the sentence: If she won the lottery, Claire would buy a car. I’ll never write Claire’d buy a car because that looks horrible in written English, but in spoken English, I’m always going to make that contraction if I’m speaking quickly and fluently. Those kinds of contractions are important for your speaking as they will make you more fluent. They will make you sound a little bit more natural in your language. But the main reason that we want to work with contractions like this is to improve your listening skills so that you are aware of them when you’re hearing people speaking to you. This is the most important reason to work with contractions.

Would you /wəʤə/

Another thing that you’ll need to think about when producing a question in the second conditional is the connection between the word would and you. Would you melts together to /wəʤə/. Start the video at 14.30 min to hear Claire say it. She will explain it to you with the example question What would you do if you had more money. When working on the right pronunciation of would you, you also need to think of the block of sound, meaning the sentence doesn’t finish after would you, it needs to go smoothly over to the rest of the sentence.

For further practice on would you, you should listen to the song What would you do? by the band City High.

Practical uses for the second conditional

You might wonder, when would be a good occasion to use the second conditional. Second conditionals are an excellent way for you to illustrate and expand your arguments. This can be done in speaking and in writing. Using the second conditional for this purpose will help you in your daily life as well as when taking an exam. Thinking of exams, you can use the second conditional perfectly in your essay, report or proposal. For example, you can use them to create scenarios like this:  Imagine we had more money, it would make a difference.  Or if you were to take away these rights, it would have terrible consequences. 

It also works great in part 4 of the speaking exam if you’re doing FCE or CAE or part 3 if you’re taking the CPE or IELTS exam. By using them you can give really nice, well rounded answers. You give your opinion, you explain your opinion and then you illustrate your opinion, where you can use the second conditional to do that. Especially if you use some of the other expressions we looked at like imagine, supposing or if you use an inversion, you’ll increase your language mark in the exam and get higher marks for grammar and also vocabulary. And that’s how you can use second conditionals in a really useful way even in a real-life context.

If you have any questions regarding the second conditional, feel free to get in contact with us.

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