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Grammar notes: second type conditionals

The structure of a second conditional sentence

Like a first conditional, a second conditional sentence consists of two clauses, an “if” clause and a main clause:

if clause main clause
If I had a million dollars, I would buy a big house.

If the “if” clause comes first, a comma is usually used. If the “if” clause comes second, there is no need for a comma:

main clause if clause
I would buy a big house if I had a million dollars.

We use different verb forms in each part of a second conditional:

if clause if + subject + simple past verb*
main clause subject + would + verb

*Note that this “simple past” form is slightly different from usual in the case of the verb BE. Whatever the subject, the verb form is “were”, not “was”: If I were rich, I’d buy a big house.


Using the second conditional

The second conditional is used to talk about things which are unreal (not true or not possible) in the present or the future — things which don’t or won’t happen:

Example Explanation
If I were you, I would drive more carefully in the rain. I am not you — this is unreal.
Paula would be sad if Jan left. Jan will not leave — that’s not going to happen.
If dogs had wings, they would be able to fly. Dogs don’t have wings — that’s impossible.

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