Unreal conditional

From Teflpedia

An unreal conditional or counterfactual conditional is a conditional that the writer/speaker feels the conditional clause is likely to be false (i.e. it is unlikely or impossible). In English, the structures traditionally known as the second conditional and third conditional are both unreal conditionals.

Tabulation[edit | edit source]

These conditionals can be mixed to form mixed conditionals that are mixture of the above:

Conditional clause Consequential clause
Past simple Past perfect
Past simple Second conditional

e.g. "If I were rich, I would buy a car."

Present condition, past consequence mixed conditional

e.g. "If I were American, I would have voted for Mrs Clinton."

Past perfect Past condition, present consequence mixed conditional

e.g. "If I had not eaten that dodgy chicken, I would not be sick now."

Third conditional

e.g. "If I hadn't eaten that chicken, I wouldn't have been sick."

Grammar analysis[edit | edit source]

These all use the past tense to express distancing due to unreality. The perfect aspect is used to express past time, while lack of perfect aspect indicates present time, future time or general time. Unreal conditionals can't be mixed with real conditionals.

Conditional clause[edit | edit source]

The conditional clauses are all counterfactual:

  • "If I were rich" (but I know I am not rich, and that’s unlikely to change while teaching English)
  • If I were American" (but I’m not American)
  • "If I hadn't eaten that chicken" (but I did eat that chicken!)

It is this counterfactuality, rather than the past tense, that’s the key defining feature here. (Note that it’s possible to form factual conditional clauses with the past tense if the condition is in the past but the result is unknown; e.g. say it is evening now, but there was a football match earlier in the afternoon. One of the player’s parents doesn't know the result of the game because they were busy and couldn't attend the match. The parent can say "If the team won the football game this afternoon, they will be happy" - this is using the past tense, but it’s a factual conditional since the likelihood that the team won is >0.

As a result, for past time conditionals, we used an unreal conditional if p=0, but a real conditional if p>0. For present time and future time conditionals, we use an unreal conditional if p ≲ 0.5

Other ways of forming conditional clauses[edit | edit source]

There are other ways of forming conditional clauses:

  • For the past simple, we can form by inversion only with "be" or "have".
    • e.g. "Were I rich,…"
    • e.g. "Had I a lot of money,…"
  • For the past perfect, we can always invert the auxiliary have:
    • e.g. "Had I not eaten that chicken,…"

We can also use conditional should, and unless, etc.

Pedagogic consequences[edit | edit source]

The second and third conditionals are traditionally analysed and presented as being different structures. However, they are strongly related.