On grammar.ccc Rob De Decker, who (as it is written there) teaches English at a Flemish grammar school in Belgium, explains the so-called first, second and third conditional.

Instant English, a best-seller, by John Peter Sloan, has a lot of pages on these grammatical constructs, which are called, again, first, second and third conditional.

Nevertheless, some EL&U competent users, like Barrie England and tchrist, more and more times repeated that the rules established with these definitions are nonsense in English grammar.

Among others, tchrist's comment below appears to be notable; what expressed is not different from Barrie England's thought.

This whole “1st/2nd/etc conditional” thing is purely an ESL meme that is never taught to native English speakers in the course of their regular grammar-school education, and which furthermore makes very little sense when subjected to rigorous analysis. I think it just confuses people to no useful end.

Obviously I don't doubt that what tchrist claims is true, albeit those definitions are useful for ESL learners.

How do English native speakers render those patterns according to British or U.S. English grammar courses?

For example, what are the real grammar rules under the following sentences, which are called first, second and third conditional by international English learners?

  1. First conditional: If I have enough money, I will go to Japan.
  2. Second conditional:If I had enough money, I would go to Japan.
  3. Third conditional: If I had had enough money, I would have gone to Japan.

The Three Conditionals (or sometimes Four Conditionals) provide perfectly adequate explanations of the sentences you cite.

So did what was taught in US high schools in my youth under the rubric Sequence of Tenses. (At least I think it did; I wasn't paying that much attention at the time.)

What needs to be kept in mind is that these are what I have elsewhere called ‘baby rules’. Students must master crawling before they walk and walking before they run, and rules of this sort are directed to crawling and walking. Your ordinary English class or English grammar textbook is a linguistic hothouse, where students are carefully isolated from uses which lie outside, and appear to violate, the rules they are learning. This provides a foothold on the language which permits the student to grow in mastery and confidence (and of course ‘self-esteem’, which is of great concern to modern educators) before they are released into the wild and must confront the horrors of real life: colloquial, business and literary English.

What tchrist (indignantly) and Barrie England (charitably) are concerned to point out (on ELU, where the audience is presumed to be sophisticated users) is that these rules are inadequate maps to large tracts of that wilderness; such sentences, for instance, as these:

If you’ll pick up the beer I’ll get the brats.
If you’d ever actually read Lévi-Strauss you wouldn’t say stupid things like that.
If it was me I’d give him what for.
If you actually look it up what he said was completely different.

Rules are for learning with; but once you’ve learned enough to walk on your own you can discard these crutches.

  • These rules are to english, as walking is to dancing. – Pureferret Apr 7 '13 at 10:35
  • @Pureferret Well, to some English. Many nominally very educated people stagger and stumble when called upon to walk a straight line. :) – StoneyB Apr 7 '13 at 15:18
  • Well, I can't dance, nor can I spot the difference between these conditionals. But it's a thought! – Pureferret Apr 7 '13 at 16:18

Nah, this terminology is not useful at all. It's like the joke about the prison in which inmates have 1000 jokes memorized by number and instead of telling the joke, they shout out the number. When a new inmate comes along, memorizes a few jokes, and shouts out a few numbers, nobody laughs. He wonders why. His cellmate tells him the reason: "Some people can tell a joke, but others can't."

What does "First conditional" mean? Nothing but a number. If I call it a "present real conditional", you should be able to understand, without being told, that the condition is realizable.

If I say that the "Second conditional" is a "present unreal conditional", you should be able to understand, without being told, that the condition is unrealizable but is an expression of a wish, a desire.

And if I say that a "Third conditional" is "a past unreal conditional", you should be able to understand, without being told, that the condition was unrealizable in the past because it was only a wish.

Taxonomy should be meaningful. Ordinal numbers as names are meaningless except to identify order, not function. Function is important in this case, not order.

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    +1 It would be lovely if the grammarians and teachers of English would get together and devise a standard terminology - preferably in English rather than Greek and Latin. But I'm afraid the "installed bases" of existing terminologies won't permit this to happen. – StoneyB Apr 6 '13 at 14:11
  • @ StoneyB: Everybody has a theoretical (ideological) ax to grind. I think it's time to reread Civilization and Its Discontents. – user264 Apr 6 '13 at 15:43
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    "71!" "Hahahaha!" (Yes, I do remember that joke! ;)) – kiamlaluno Apr 6 '13 at 16:11

I’m not as hostile as you suggest to explaining conditional sentences in terms of the three conditionals. They by no means tell the whole story, but they are a useful starting point for foreign learners.

Native speakers need no instruction in how to create conditional sentences, and academic linguists take a different approach when describing them. The authors of the ‘Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English’, for example, do recognise three kinds of conditional clauses, but they are rather different from the three presented to foreign learners. They propose the open type, in which the clause does not say whether or not the condition is fulfilled; the hypothetical type, which implies that the condition is not fulfilled; and the rhetorical type which takes the form of a condition, but combined with the main clause, makes a strong assertion.


The first sentence is using the present tense in the if part, and it has the same meaning of "When I have enough money, I will go to Japan."

The second sentence is using the subjunctive mood (what my grammar book calls past subjunctive); it expresses something that will never be realized/possible. It is similar to "If I were rich, I would live on Long Island." which means "I will never be rich to live on Long Island, and I will never live there."

The third sentence is a conditional sentence talking of the past. It means that you could have gone to Japan, if you had enough money.

Notice that your third example doesn't say anything about the future. The sentence just says that you had that opportunity in the past (for example, some friends of yours were going to Japan, and asked you if you wanted to go with them), but you didn't have money.

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    <comments removed> This discussion has been moved to chat. Please continue any discussions there. Thanks! – WendiKidd Apr 6 '13 at 17:00

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