I found this sentence in my workbook:

If you were a king, what'd your wife be called?"

Why was the ‘second conditional’ used here? That situation is completely impossible, so I think, it should be the ‘third conditional’:

If you had been a king, what your wife would have been called?

Another example of a sentence which I found:

What would you do if you needed a haircut?

It's in the ‘second conditional’, so it should be an unlikely situation, but for me, it's really possible, so I would use the ‘first conditional’:

What will you do if you need a haircut?

I don't understand that.

  • 6
    "First, second, and third conditional" are not standard terms, and only your classmates will know what you mean by them. You seem to be following rules that nobody else believes in, so you're probably not going to get a satisfying answer here. Sorry about that. Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 20:36
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    Time and time again I see users dismissing questions because some poor soul uses the terms zero, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd conditional. Why is there this pretence of not knowing what they mean? Why the disparagement, and refusal to acknowledge their existence? These terms, whether we like it or not, are taught to language learners, specifically at pre-intermediate and intermediate levels. I know that conditionals cannot be packaged in three or four boxes, but that's how they're taught, and the explanations that accompany them are pretty valid nonetheless.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 21:52
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    I don't in fact know what those terms mean, @Mari-Lou. They're not used by grammarians, nor taught in school grammars in the United States. It sounds like they are indeed taught to language learners, somewhere, but without definitions and examples (and not just silly names with irrelevant numbers attached), I can't do a thing. Where does this pretense of the universality of these terms come from? Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 22:40
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    I'm sorry, but this can't be the first time you have encountered these terms @JohnLawler. I realize that it is not taught at native schools, grammar rarely is nowadays, but this form of classification has been taught to language learners for maybe twenty years or more. There's even a conditional tense called "mixed", so that makes it five :) I just find it so frustrating and sad that so many choose to dismiss people's questions on conditionals because these learners have been taught to label them with numbers. It's not their fault, is it?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 22:47
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    @Mary-Lou. Well said. I am also a little tired of the automatic disparagement that accompanies any question daring to ask about the n-conditionals. For those unfamiliar with ELL pedagogy the 4 commonly taught patterns are: Zero conditional: If he asks for money, I give it to him. First conditional: If he asks for money, I will give it to him. Second conditional: If he asked for money, I would give it to him. Third conditional: If he had asked for money, I would have given it to him.
    – Shoe
    Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 8:09

4 Answers 4


I'll try and do my best to answer this question, in such a way that you'll be able to make some sense out of this, and then apply these guidelines in the future.

The first sentence is an example of the so-called second conditional

If you were a king, what'd your wife be called?

Rightly so, edyta—the OP—said this is an impossible situation. The chances of edyta, whom I presume is a woman, becoming king is even more remote. But the sentence doesn't refer to a past event. Being a king never happened and it never will. The idiomatic phrase If + you + were is expressing an unreal situation, similar to saying: Let's pretend you are a king.

The construction If + subject + past and would + infinitive is often referred to as irrealis, which means that the situation proposed is ‘unreal’ or ‘imaginary’ in the present
See also Present Unreal Conditional

The past verb-form is used to suggest that the situation is probable, or imaginary, or set in a hypothetical future.

Martin Parrott provides this insight:

We use them [type 2 conditional sentences] to refer to or speculate about something that is (or that we perceive to be) impossible or ‘contrary to fact’. This is sometimes presented to learners as ‘very unlikely’. The real point, however, is that at the moment of speaking we see the action or event as being impossible.

Source: Grammar for English Language Teachers

  • Probable; e.g. “If I were on holiday, I'd go to the beach every day.”

  • Imaginary; e.g. “If I were a cat, I'd catch mice all day long.”

  • Or hypothetical future event; e.g. “If I had a car, we would drive down to Mexico.”

The OP's example falls under the category of imaginary, If I were a King. . .

The following sentence is an example of a hypothetical future event

A: What would you do if you needed a haircut?

i. I'd go to the hairdresser's.
ii. I'd cut it myself.
iii. I don't know. Cut it, I guess. Why are you asking?

The so-called ‘third conditional’ is for talking about a hypothetical/imaginary situation in the past (which didn't happen) and its consequence.

If you had worked harder last year, you would have passed your exam
if + past perfect and would have + past participle
See also: Past Unreal Conditional

Thus the sentence (note my correction on the word order)

If you had been king, what would your wife have been called?

Expresses either an imaginary situation in the past that didn't happen, or an event that didn't happen in the past. In both cases, the situation is ‘impossible’ because we cannot change the past.

  • “It is clear that a division of conditionals into the zero, first, second, and third categories does not adequately reflect actual usage.” It’s an ESL myth that is not taught to native speakers (Thank Goodness!) nor is it used by linguists, since it doesn’t make sense because it does not reflect actual usage. That means this is strictly an ESL bug and so belongs on English Language Learners.
    – tchrist
    Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 12:10
  • @tchrist I was never taught the conditionals at school, no one in the UK was taught about them (pre 1980s). I just knew how to say 'em, without even knowing what they were called, and I'd wager this is true for most native North American speakers too. You don't need to study grammar in order to speak a native language.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 13:54
  • @Mari-Lou: North American native speakers also know how to say them without being taught them, but a number of U.S. dialects get them "wrong". Commented Apr 22, 2015 at 15:04
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    @PeterShor Thank you. And if you had to teach the conditional to a group of non-native speakers aged between 11 and 16 how would you approach it? Would you?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 22, 2015 at 15:36
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    I think ESL teachers have to lie. If they didn't lie, ESL would be too complicated. But they could say "these are the most common uses of the conditional we're teaching you. There are also mixed conditionals, but those are much rarer so you can learn them later" Commented Apr 22, 2015 at 15:37

"If you had been a king, what your wife would have been called?" has the sense of referring to a [specific] time that occurred in the listener's past, which makes it completely impossible -- because we cannot change the past.

"If you were a king, what'd your wife be called?" asks a hypothetical question about a situation that, while unlikely, could still happen in theory and could very easily take place in the imagination, dreams, story-telling, fiction, etc.


The difference between the second and third conditional is not whether it is possible or not, but whether it's set in the present or the past.

If you were a flying unicorn, what color would you be?

Second conditional because it's set in the present, even though it's completely impossible.

If William Quantrill had buried a quarter of a million dollars in gold during the Civil War, where would he have put it?

Third conditional, because it's set in the past, even though it's remotely possible. (Although it's clear that the speaker thinks Quantrill's gold is indeed a myth. If he thought it were likely, he would have used buried instead of had buried.)

  • “If a unicorn pooped here then where’s the smell?” :)
    – tchrist
    Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 12:24
  • Being "set" in a particular time is not a grammatical but a discourse phenomenon. Tense and time are not the same things. Were is a past tense form, any way you look at it (unless you get a papal dispensation). If it's demonstrably past tense, but not "set" in the past, what are the tests for determining the "setting"? Commented Apr 27, 2015 at 16:00

"If you were a king, what'd your wife be called?" [present time

"If you had been a king, what your wife would have been called?" [past time

  • What'd is short for what did, not what would. Commented Apr 22, 2015 at 15:35

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