Second Conditionals

What is the second conditional?

The second conditional, also known as the unreal conditional or type-II if-clause, talks about an unlikely or imaginary condition and its result. It imagines that the present is different to how it really is.

Example:
If I had a million pounds, I would buy a beautiful house on the coast.
in reality I do not have a million pounds, and I can’t buy such a house

When to use the second conditional

Typical situations where we use the second conditional include:

  • giving advice
Example:
If I were you, I would wait a while before calling.
  • asking hypothetical questions
Example:
What would you do if you were invisible for a day?
  • imagining life as different
Example:
If I lived abroad, I would miss my family a lot.
  • making excuses
Example:
I’m so sorry, if I didn’t have to work, I would come to your party.

How to form the second conditional

The conditional clause contains a past tense, while the main clause contains would + infinitive.

Example:
If I had a bike, I would cycle to work every day.

One or both clauses can be negative. The main clause can be a question.

Examples:
If I didn’t have my dog, I would be so lonely. (one negative clause, one positive)
I wouldn’t need a car if I didn’t live in the countryside. (two negative clauses)
If you changed jobs, what would you do?

We can use the modal verbs could and might instead of would. Could introduces the idea of ability, while might expresses a possibility. We do not use should in the second conditional.

Example:
If Shaunagh and I lived in the same city, we could hang out more often.
If I had a butler, my house might be tidier.

Commas in the second conditional

Like with other conditional types, we can reverse the order of the clauses with no change in meaning.

Example:
If I won the lottery, I would retire early. = I would retire early if I won the lottery.

When the if-clause comes first, it is followed by a comma. When the clauses are reversed, we do not use a comma.

Example:
If he exercised more, he would feel better. (comma after the if-clause)
He would feel better if he exercised more. (no comma)

Info

Remember! If and would never appear in the same clause:

Example:
If I knew the answer, I would tell you.
not: If I would know the answer, …

If I were you vs. If I was you

When we use the verb be in second conditional if-clauses, we can use were instead of was with the I, he, she and it forms of the verb. There is no change in meaning, although were is sometimes considered more formal than was.

Examples:
If she were more friendly, she would be more popular with customers.
= If she was more friendly, …
If it weren’t so busy at the beach, we would go more often.
= If it wasn’t so busy …

The most common structure in this context is if I were you. It is practical for giving advice.

Example:
If I were you, I would avoid that restaurant.