How to Use & Mix the 2nd and 3rd Conditional?

What is the difference between the 2nd and 3rd Conditional

Mixed conditionals? They exist? Really? Oh, the look of disbelief of many as they begin understanding the basic conditionals, only to find out there’s more. And it seems as though it never ends, doesn’t it?

Yesterday it was the Past Perfect and Present Perfect, the day before learning how to choose the best tense to describe the future. The day before that… We get it, it can seem daunting, but it’s far from it, especially if you find the perfect place to learn English in CA. Before you do, though, here’s some help with the 2nd, 3rd, and mixed conditionals. 

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What is the difference between the 2nd and 3rd Conditional?

Differentiating between the Second Conditional and the Third Conditional is an aspect of the English language many learners have a lot of trouble with. It’s understandable as conditionals are tricky and distinguishing between them even trickier. 

Barring a visit to the University of California Department of Linguistics for an in-depth explanation of the problem, what is a learner to do? Well, we understand the predicament you find yourself in, so we’ve tried to make this guide as detailed as possible. 

In order to explain it as well as we can, let’s take for an example two virtually identical sentences, but in two different conditionals - the Second and the Third, and note both the grammatical differences, as well as differences in meaning and use. 

  • If you listened more carefully in class, you would get better grades in Maths.
  • If you had listened more carefully in class, you would have gotten better grades in maths.

1. Grammar differences - Let’s first take a look at the grammar of it all. The first sentence is in the Second Conditional, while the second sentence is in the Third Conditional.

As you can see, in the first sentence we used Past Simple Tense in the if-clause, and the modal verb would plus the main verb in the main clause. That’s how you form the Second Conditional.

In the second sentence, we used Past Perfect Tense in the if-clause, and the modal verb would + have + past participle in the main clause. That is the structure of the Third Conditional.

And that is how you should always start - noting differences in the grammar. After that, you can start focusing on the meaning behind the grammar, that is the meaning that you want to convey using various grammar structures.

2. Differences in meaning - Now we discuss the differences you’re probably more interested in - the differences in meaning and use. What’s the point of knowing how to form a conditional if you don’t know how to use it, right?

The main difference is that you can use the Second Conditional to describe a result that can happen although it is unlikely that it will, while you use the Third Conditional to describe a situation that could have happened in the past had a condition been met.

The point is this - the Second Conditional denotes an action that could still happen in the future, while the Third Conditional describes an event that didn’t happen in the past, although it could have, and that will remain unchanged.

Why do we use mixed conditionals?

We use mixed conditionals to make an already difficult portion of the English language even more so. On a more serious note, we use mixed Conditionals to express more nuanced meanings than we could with regular conditional sentences. 

There are two types of mixed Conditionals, and in both types, you mix the Second and the Third Conditional. You use the “if” part of one and the “main” part of the other to form two new types of conditional sentences. 

1. Past condition/present result - This is where we take the “if” part of the Third Conditional and the “main” part of the Second Conditional. So, if-clause - Past Perfect Tense; Main clause - would and the main verb. 

This mixed Conditional expresses that there was a condition that could have been fulfilled in the past and that it bears a result in the present. 

  • If I hadn’t missed my bus, I would be in France now.
  • If I had slept longer, I wouldn’t be tired now.
  • If she had tried harder, she would be more successful now. 

2. Present condition/past result - The other mixed conditional is even more difficult than the last. We take the “main” part of the Third Conditional and the “if” part of the Second Conditional. We use Past Simple Tense in the if-clause and would + have + past participle in the main clause.

We use this mixed Conditional to express a present condition, i.e. something that hasn’t changed from the past, to describe why a certain past result didn’t occur. 

  • If I had more money, I would have gone to France. 
  • If I slept longer, I would not have been too tired to go to class.
  • If she tried harder, she would have been more successful.

“Which language school can help me learn English conditionals in CA?”

If you’re looking for an English language school in CA to help you learn everything there is about conditional sentences, there’s only one place you should consider going - College of English Language.

We have the best teaching staff, modern equipment, and a great desire to teach every single one of our students to the best of our abilities. So, if conditionals are making you sweat, stop by our school next time you’re near the San Diego Zoo. You won’t regret it!




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