The second conditional sentence helps you talk about things that probably won’t happen. It can work in the future and also in the present, exactly the same way!
It’s very easy to learn how to make it. Let’s take a look.
Use It For Things in the Future That Will Probably Not Happen
First, we can use it to talk about things in the future that are probably not going to be true. It is possible, but not very likely. For example, you can use it to talk about something you dream about, but probably won’t happen.
- If I won the lottery, I would buy a big house. (I probably won’t win the lottery.)
- If he were rich, he would travel all over the world. (He is not rich, so he doesn’t travel.)
- If she studied, she would pass the exam. (She does not study much, so she won’t pass.)
- If I had a million dollars, I would invest it wisely! (I don’t have a million dollars.)
Do you see that there are two parts to each sentence? One is an if + simple past clause:
If I won the lottery,
If he were rich,
If she studied,
If I had a million dollars,
The other is a would + infinitive verb clause:
…I would buy a big house.
…he would travel all over the world.
…she would pass the exam.
…I would invest it wisely!
You can reverse the clauses, too, and the sentence means the same thing.
I would buy a big house if I won the lottery.
He would travel all over the world if he were rich.
She would pass the exam if she studied.
I would invest it wisely if I had a million dollars!
If you use the would + infinitive verb clause first, just don’t use a comma to separate the clauses. That’s it! Pretty easy to construct, right?
Just a Note
Did you also notice that I used were instead of was with the subjects I and he? In written and formal English, the simple past of be in the second conditional is always were.
If I were rich…If you were rich…If he were rich…If we were rich…If they were rich…
But in spoken and informal English, you can use was with I and he/she/it, just like you always do in the simple past.
If I was rich…If you were rich…If he was rich…If we were rich…If they were rich…
Use It For Something Impossible In the Present
Second, we can use it to talk about something in the present which is impossible, because it’s not true. Here are some sample sentences:
- If I had his number, I would call him. (I don’t have his number now, so it’s impossible for me to call him).
- You would have more money if you did not spend it all on silly things.
- If she had more free time, she would cook all her meals at home.
Use It For Suggestions and Opinions
Third, we can use the second conditional to express our opinions – to give advice, suggestions and recommendations.
- If I were you, I would not do business with that man.
- I would study harder if I were you.
- If I were you, I would buy some new socks.
Remember that the correct written and formal formation of the second conditional uses “were.” However, also remember that many native speakers use “was” instead. But even in spoken and informal English, people will use the expression “if I were you.”
Want To Ask A Question With the Second Conditional?
This is easy, too. Just put a question mark at the end of your sentence. The would + infinitive verb clause will always be first when you ask a question.
Would you do business with that man if you were me?
Would you buy a big house if you won the lottery?
Would she cook all her meals at home if she had more free time?
Now let’s answer the questions.
No, I wouldn’t. or If I were you, I wouldn’t do business with that man.
Yes, I would. or If I won the lottery, I would definitely buy a big house.
I think she would. or She would probably cook all her meals at home if she won the lottery.
In the question, the would + infinitive verb always comes first. In the answer, you can use the if + simple past clause first if you want to.
Did you notice something else about the answers?
You can put an adverb in between would and the infinitive verb.
…I would definitely buy…
She would probably cook…
If you want to put an adverb in the sentence, it goes between would and the infinitive verb. Adding an adverb like definitely, probably, never, always, really, etc., can make your sentence sound more informal and natural.
Would + adverb + infinitive verb.
If I got a new car, I wouldn’t really want to get it dirty.
If I were you, I would absolutely go on vacation.
If he were president, he would totally reduce taxes.
How Can You Make Negative Sentences?
Use the normal rules of making a verb negative. You will need the auxiliary verb didn’t in the if + simple past clause, unless you are using the verb to be. Then you will just use weren’t.
If I didn’t have a headache, I would go to the party.
If we didn’t have to work, we would meet for dinner.
If I weren’t sleepy, I would stay up and read.
In the would + infinitive verb clause, just use not. You can almost always say wouldn’t.
If I knew his number, I wouldn’t tell you.
If we paid for her ticket, she still wouldn’t come. (with a negative, now the adverb comes first.)
He wouldn’t make the team even if he were taller. (even is a word that adds extra strength to the fact that this thing is not very possible.)
How is this different from the first conditional?
This kind of conditional sentence is different from the first conditional because this is much more unlikely. You can tell the difference because the first conditional also uses different verbs – if + simple present, and will + infinitive verb.
For example (second conditional):
If I had enough money, I would buy a nice house by the ocean. (I’m probably not going to have this much money anytime soon, it’s just a dream, not very real for now at least)
But (first conditional):
If I have enough money, I’ll buy some new shoes. (It’s much more likely that I’ll have enough money to buy some shoes)
Read more about advanced English grammar, including the conditional tenses: