English Grammar

Real and Unreal Conditional Sentences

by Eugene R. Moutoux

1. Here is a quiz for you:

Which is correct: if I was or if I were?

Which is correct: if he was or if he were?

Which is correct: if it was or if it were?

All six are correct at one time or another; it depends on the meaning of if ("on condition that" or "whether") and on context. If you answered correctly, you can skip this section and go to the head of the class.

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2. There are two kinds of conditional clauses: real and unreal (or contrary-to-fact). Real conditional sentences require the indicative mood, unreal the subjunctive. Here is an example of each:

- If you have a dollar [itís possible that you do], he wants it.

- If you had a dollar [but you donít], he would want it.

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3. The difference between real and unreal conditional sentences is often subtle. The following sentences illustrate this:

- If you tell me you love me [itís possible you will tell me], I will be the happiest person in the world.

- If you told me you loved me [itís possible you will tell me], I would be the happiest person in the world.

So what gives? Do both sentences mean exactly the same thing? Yes, but the first sentence is expressed more optimistically than the second. Regardless, the first sentence is called a real conditional sentence, and the second is called an unreal conditional sentence. 

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4. Iíll throw you one more curve ball (imagine two kids arguing):

- If Iím a baboon [Iíll go along with you just to make a point], youíre a stupid baboon.

- If I were a baboon [Iím not], you would be a stupid baboon.

The indicative is a more forceful mood than the subjunctive; it is effective here even though the condition is unreal.

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5. The unreal conditional sentence If she hurried, she would be on time can be expressed in five other ways:

- If she were to hurry, she would be on time.

- Were she to hurry, she would be on time.

- She would be on time if she hurried.

- She would be on time if she were to hurry.

- She would be on time were she to hurry.

Unreal conditional sentences do not have a distinct future tense; the present tense is used for both present and future time.

 

6. The unreal conditional sentence If she had hurried, she would have been on time can be expressed in three other ways:

- Had she hurried, she would have been on time.

- She would have been on time if she had hurried.

- She would have been on time had she hurried.

 

7. Conditional sentences, both real and unreal, can have mixed tense: one tense in the subordinate clause and a different tense in the main clause. Here are examples:

- If he wins the jackpot, I will expect half of it. (real condition, present tense indicative; main clause, future tense indicative)

- If he won the jackpot [he may have], I have a right to half of it. (real condition, past tense indicative; main clause, present tense indicative)

- If he won the jackpot [he may have], I will quit my job. (real condition, past tense indicative; main clause, future tense indicative)

- If he had won the jackpot [he didnít], I would go back to school. (unreal condition, past tense subjunctive; main clause, present conditional)

 

8. Speakers and writers get in trouble when they mix tenses or moods problematically, as in the following sentence:

- If she saw the movie, she would have been able to talk about it.

This sentence uses either the past indicative or the present subjunctive in the if-clause and the past conditional in the main clause. Neither combination is logical. Here are ways of keeping If she saw the movie while changing the main clause:

- If she saw the movie, she would be able to talk about it.

- If she saw the movie, she is able to talk about it.

- If she saw the movie, she was able to talk about it.

One can also keep the main clause intact and change the subordinate clause, as follows:

- If she had seen the movie, she would have been able to talk about it.

- Had she seen the movie, she would have been able to talk about it.

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9. When speaking or writing formally, take care not to use would in the conditional clause (the if-clause); would should be used only in the conclusion. Thus, If you asked me, I would tell you is better than If you would ask me, I would tell you, and If you had asked me, I would have told you is better than If you would have asked me, I would have told you.

- from the teacher's enlarged edition of my book Diagramming Step by Step: One Hundred and Fifty-one Steps to Diagramming Excellence

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