Second Conditional If-Clauses in English Grammar

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What is the second conditional?

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

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


—I have the summer off and I want to visit as many countries as possible. Where would you go if you had six weeks off?

—If I were you, I would go to Europe. If you went there, you could see multiple countries in a day!

—But if I did that, the planning would be a nightmare. I wouldn’t relax if I had to buy tickets every day.

—It would be easy if you bought an Interrailing ticket. If you had one, you would be able to travel all over with no stress.

—That sounds perfect! I will look into it.

When to use second conditional if-clauses

Typical situations where we use second conditional if-clauses include:

  • giving advice
    If I were you, I would go to Europe.
  • asking hypothetical questions
    Where would you go if you had six weeks off?
  • imagining life as different
    If I lived abroad, I would miss my family a lot.
  • making excuses
    I’m so sorry, if I didn’t have to work, I would come to your party.

How to form the second conditional

Second conditional if-clauses contain a past tense, while the main clause contains would + infinitive.

If you had an Interrailing ticket, the planning would be easy.

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

I wouldn’t relax if I had to buy new tickets every day. (one negative clause, one positive)
If I didn’t have a free summer, I wouldn’t be able to travel. (two negative clauses)
If you had six weeks off, where would you go?

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.

If you went to Europe, you could see multiple countries in one day.
Travelling might be easier if you had a bigger budget.

Commas in the second conditional

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

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.

If I did that, the planning would be a nightmare. (comma after the if-clause)
The planning would be a nightmare if I did that. (no comma)


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

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.

If it were possible, I would stay in five-star hotels for the whole trip.
= If it was possible, …
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.

If I were you, I would go to Europe.