Explaining the Second Conditional and the Third Conditional in a "logical" way



When I was searching for a job, I applied to be an English teacher, and the employer asked me about "how to efficiently explain to students the difference between the second conditional and the third conditional." And I presented to him my own explanation and finally failed.

Please be reminded that I am not asking for my benefit but just asking for the pure confusion because the question of why I failed remains to this day.

The Second Conditional
If there is a sentence like below, how would you, as a native speaker, explain the "logic" of the meaning of the present perfect?

If I were him, I am going to go to the shop.

The potential employer simply told me that "even though the first part of the speech is past tense, that part (=If clause, here) is demonstrating the present situation."

My explanation was, "The first speech denotes the past. Therefore, that situation is "irreversible." However, if the "irreversible" situation becomes "reversible" by putting "if", that part of the speech will denote that you are describing "now." So, the last part of the speech could denote possible future events."

The Third Conditional
In the case of a sentence like:

If he had not been there, he would be alright now.

My logical explanation would have been:

The first part of the speech was denoting the "past before the past." So even if "if" was put, that would remain as a past, so that is still "irreversible." Therefore, the last part of the speech denotes the present (and irreversible) result.

"He" (the employer) did not comment at all because the "interview" had ended before I was trying to explain about the past perfect.

What would you think of my "logic?" Does anyone have "precise" logic about this grammar? After all my searching, what came up was just the case in which English native speakers are not explaining the "logic" at all, but simply the grammar itself.


Posted 2015-03-02T05:45:55.080

Reputation: 2 476

4Just curious, is this example "If I were him, I am going to go to the shop." your own or were you being asked to explain it? I ask because this one, at least, is not a grammatical sentence and does not make sense at all. – Catija – 2015-03-02T06:36:40.780

Thank you for your comment so much. I thought too it would sounds strange. The last part of the speech should've been "would have", I think. But I "made up" that speech, because I have seen somewhere it "could be" likely. So, According you, should it have been "If I were him, I would have gone to the shop ( already )"???????? – Kentaro – 2015-03-02T06:54:27.120

1Yes, that sounds much better. The already does change the meaning but both are viable options depending on what you're trying to say. – Catija – 2015-03-02T06:56:12.470

Thank you, please take it as a mistake. HOWEVER, the "employer" said differently as far as I remember. I am sorry that Japanese' English is really poor. – Kentaro – 2015-03-02T07:10:05.823

1You'll want to find yourself a decent, solid, grammar book. It should explain to you that a past-tense has three main uses: past time, modal remoteness, backshift; and that a single past-tense verb can only perform one of those uses when it is used. A past-perfect construction has two past-tenses in it: a primary past-tense, and a secondary past-tense; and those two past-tenses are often used to make various combinations that involve the three main uses of past-tenses. – F.E. – 2015-03-02T07:33:33.313

what's present past? you mean a simple past tense? – Maulik V – 2015-03-02T08:51:33.553

Thank you all the people here who commented. I should have written "How to explain the second conditional and third conditional in a "logical" way. Well as Mr. F.E said, I might need to go deep into the "solid" books explaining what he said. Anyway, thank you guys. – Kentaro – 2015-03-02T13:57:49.597



First of all, it might be helpful to get a firm grip on what actually goes on with conditionals. Basically, there are two tense systems that we use. The first is the tense system we generally use when using sentences with subordinate clauses that tell us about when something is going to happen. This is to say we use past verb forms to talk about past time, and we use present tenses to talk about present and future time. Within this type of conditional we can see all sorts of verb forms and modals in both clauses.

In the second system we can observe what is sometimes called backshifting of tense. What this means is that in these conditionals we use past tenses to talk about present and future time, and we use past perfect verb forms to talk about past time - even when we would normally expect to just see a past simple or continuous verb form. These backshifted conditionals have a different type of logic that is very difficult to accurately describe. This doesn't matter too much, because most languages have types of conditional which match these meanings very closely. So what you really need to do is enable learners to identify which ones they need. Effectively, backshifted conditionals are hypothetical, in the sense that when we use them we are more interested in discussing the idea at hand than we are directly in the immediate physical world.

When we use normal conditionals, what we are saying is that the situation described in the result clause WILL HAPPEN (or did happen etc), if the situation in the if-clause happens or did happen. When we use backshifted conditionals, we are saying that the situation in the result clause is a LOGICAL RESULT of the situation in the if-clause. However in this instance, it does not matter whether the situation in the if-clause ever happens or not. What we are emphasising is that the result clause is logically connected to the if-clause.

Students understand very quickly whether a given situation is hypothetical or not for them. All you need is a few examples.

However, here is the nasty truth of things. EFL books, and linguists in general know pretty much nothing about conditionals at all. However, we don't really like to say that we know nothing about something, especially if we have to write a reference grammar on it or teach it to students. For this reason, we like to make things up that are flagrantly not true or are only half true. It generally beats having nothing to say. This means that you need to learn what rubbish it is that you are expected to know. After that you need to know how to avoid teaching this at all costs.

The ugly untruth

This is the lie that you need to learn. Firstly, backshifted conditionals are sorted into two types. The second conditional uses the past simple to talk about the present of future. The third conditional is used to talk about past time.

The second conditional indicates that a given situation is UNLIKELY. The third conditional indicates that a given situation is IMPOSSIBLE. [Remember - none of this is true!!!!!]

Different writers use different words to describe this improbability. They use terms like modal remoteness and negative epistemic stance, or they just talk generally about improbability.

So, if you go for an interview to get onto a teacher-training course, what they want you to say is something like:

  • For the second conditional, I would give my students unlikely situations such as winning the lottery, and get them to make sentences about what they would do if they won.

  • For the third conditional, I would ask them about regrets they have in their life and how their lives would be different if they hadn't done those things.

In terms of explaining the difference, second conditionals indicate unlikely situations in the present or future and third conditionals indicate impossible situations in the past.

If you can remember that story, you will be able to pass the interview with flying colours.

Why you should never teach anyone this baloney

You may have noticed that you breathe when you sleep. However much you agree with this statement, you are unlikely to agree that you sleep when you breathe. Now we may use second and third conditionals when we think that a situation we're talking about is unlikely or impossible. But this is only because we cannot talk about these situations by describing the world directly. These situations are necessarily hypothetical. However, just because we wish to discuss things in a hypothetical manner does not mean that we think they are unlikely to happen. We often talk hypothetically for other reasons:

  • It is less direct and intrusive than talking directly about the world - especially if we are making suggestions to someone else or discussing a situation that doesn't directly affect us personally: Well, if you took the position at Kings college you'd be near your friends, and if you took ...

  • We may not want to bring the discussion round to whether the situation in the if-clause is actually going to happen or not. We may want to keep it hypothetical: So, if we offered you this position, what kind of salary would you be expecting?

  • We may want to emphasise the logical connection between the if-clause and the result clause: If he had the measles he would be displaying exactly the symptoms that he is in fact displaying.

Notice that we cannot use a non-backshifted conditional for that last example. If you teach your students that we use backshifted conditionals because they indicate that the event described in the if-clause is unlikely, they will understand that last conditional to be saying exactly the reverse of what it's intending to say. Furthermore, it also means that your students may misunderstand people in interviews for example. Your students may think that the interviewer is not going to offer them the job when they ask about a hypothetical situation in which your student is given the job. Lastly, if your students ever become EFL teachers or write on sites like this one, they will unwittingly lie to all and sundry about the real meaning of backshifted conditionals.

So, in short, you need to learn this so you can parrot it at interviews. You then need to remember never to teach this deleterious piffle to your students.

Araucaria - Not here any more.

Posted 2015-03-02T05:45:55.080

Reputation: 25 536

1Very well articulated. To add to what you've said, many students are native in languages that clearly distiguish between the real/unreal conditionals either by using distinct conjunctions, or with verb inflections. The conceptual difference is very clear in their heads, but then they get exposed to the rubbish you've mentioned: 'If I win the race ...' (by the fastest runner), 'If I won the race ...' (By the slowest runner)! - you can't imagine how confusing this is (and the middle runner?!). More people should talk about this issue in the hope of stopping this pedagogical atrocity. – BazAU – 2018-01-18T05:53:25.737

I enjoy, and learn a lot, from your erudite answers. But I find this post is rather too polemical. The explanations for common uses of the past/past perfect in the so-called Conditional 2 and 3 are not drivel, and they may be an appropriate way to start on the topic in some learning contexts. But they are not the whole story by a long shot and this needs to be made clear to learners from the outset. – Shoe – 2019-07-21T16:33:49.493

@Shoe As a long term English teacher, I started my investigations into conditionals precisely because one of my students had walked out of an interview because he knew he wasn't going to be given the job. How did he know? They said to him "If we offered you the job, when would you be able to start?"! For my MA dissertation, I did a questionnaire of 1,700 odd students, around 300 of whom were second language speakers. One of the findings was that second language learners were very likely to give counterfactual readings to conditional sentences where native speakers wouldn't. – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2019-10-20T14:01:31.260

@Shoe This was predicted before the study precisely because of the way that conditionals are taught to students. There is nothing wrong whatsoever to use situations where we don't believe something is going to happen, or think it is unlikely in order to trigger the kinds of environments where we think hypothetically, but this is very different from telling students that speakers use 2nd/3rd conditional to convey that they think that something is unlikely. Why? Because it isn't true! – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2019-10-20T14:05:59.267

@Shoe [The fact they are speaking hypothetically may be because they are thinking about something they don't think will happen, but that's a different thing altogether]. – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2019-10-20T14:06:06.457

Thanks for the background information about your unfortunate student. It goes some way to explaining the passion on display in your answer above! To my shame, I'm not sure I understand your sentence starting "There is nothing wrong whatsoever..." (A quick aside, I don't think the 3rd conditional is relevant to the discussion at hand.) What is clearly untrue, is that native speakers use the 2nd conditional always and only to express unlikelihood. But they certainly do use it sometimes to express a greater unlikelihood than the conditional 1 equivalent. – Shoe – 2019-10-20T19:02:31.180

For example, H&P's Students Grammar, which I believe we both consider to be one of the best modern pedagogic grammars, discusses the use of the modal preterite for remoteness (p46-47). The example is: "If you left now, you'd miss the rush-hour traffic". H&P explain: [This example] "presents your leaving now as somewhat less likely than ["If you leave now, you'll miss the rush-hour traffic"]: It would generally be preferred, for example, in a context where your current plans or inclinations are to leave later". Perhaps we can make time sometime to pursue this interesting discussion in chat. – Shoe – 2019-10-20T19:03:04.340

1Fist of all, thank you so much for your answer. First of all, I must need to read yours with the much attention.... and sorry that my name changed since I used this at Japanese language site. – Kentaro – 2015-03-02T23:32:27.070

@KentaroTomono Your English is fine! Trust me, I'm an English teacher. – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2015-03-03T00:16:29.763

Let me take your answer as the nicest. I will search myself accordingly. Thank you anyway. – Kentaro – 2015-03-03T11:58:18.663

Eva Acosta Maya has posted a brief summary of the theory of the three conditionals. – Jasper – 2015-03-09T06:06:30.257

@Jasper Thanks, was that for me or Kentaro though? :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2015-03-09T11:24:44.833

1Araucaria -- I meant the comment for you, and for the "Linked" section in the right column. When I wrote the comment, I included your name. Stack Exchange deleted your name, because it is in response to your answer. – Jasper – 2015-03-09T15:22:12.403