Zero and First conditional shows something will happen in certain degree ,but I don't get about Second Conditional and Third Conditional.

Both of them are impossible and unreal, what is the difference?

  • 4
    Those are just arbitrary (and stupidly non-descript) labels that have been applied to certain real-world speech contexts by educators. 9 out of 10 native English speakers won't be able to say what the second and third conditional are, but almost all of them would be able to make sentences that follow the patterns.
    – TimR
    Commented Jun 20, 2015 at 11:23

2 Answers 2


1 - If + Past tense, subjunctive (irreality)

  • If I had* the necessary money I would buy a new car. (But I don't have the necessary money.)

2 - If + Past Perfect tense, subjunctive (irreality referring to past time)

  • If I had* known how difficult Latin is I would never have begun studying it.

In 1 you speak of now, in 2 you speak of something in the past. The asterisk* marks "had" after "if" as subjunctive form.

I would forget those terms conditional 2 and conditional 3, they will never give you an understanding of the grammar system.

If we use the following notation

Pt for Past, Pt* for Past subjunctive

PP for Past perfect, PP* For Past perfect, subjunctive

C1 for Conditional (would + bare infinitive)

C2 for Conditional perfect (would + bare infinitive perfect)

you have the following structure

In 1: If + Pt*, C1

In 2: If + PP*, C2


The difference is the tense used. The second conditional refers to a present unreal event - "If I were you, I would look for a new place to live."

The third conditional refers to a past unreal event - "If I had been there, I would have run from the dog."

  • Is it possible to use "if I were you, I would ...." in third conditional?
    – Phil
    Commented Jun 20, 2015 at 7:11
  • No, if you use those tenses it is a second conditional, not a third. Those conditionals are based on these tenses.
    – Vlammuh
    Commented Jun 20, 2015 at 8:48
  • 1
    Formally you say "if i had been you, i would've..." but most of native speakers would say only "if i were you, i would've.." because it's kind of an exception. Because you don't say "if i was you", you say "if i were you". And this "were" remains even for past participle tense. Commented Sep 28, 2018 at 12:06

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