Friday, March 2, 2012

English Conditionals: 3rd Conditional

It's hard to find pictures to illustrate grammatical concepts, so here's a nice flower.

Hello, and welcome to "Fun Friday" on Sitzman ABC! Today we'll talk about the Third Conditional in English.

"Wait!" you're possibly thinking, "That doesn't sound like fun!" Good point. I know that grammar can be difficult and complicated, but it's also very important to learn how to use grammar correctly, especially if you want to be an advanced English speaker. So, I'll try to make this post interesting, at least, but you'll have to forgive me if you don't think it's fun.

You might remember that late last year we talked about the 1st and 2nd conditionals in English, and I had meant to write a post about the 3rd conditional immediately after those. However, I had trouble finding a song I liked that used the 3rd conditional. Some English sites mention that Taylor Swift's song "Should've Said No" is good, and it does have some examples of 3rd conditional, but it's not a good song. I just don't like it, so sorry (you can still check it out here if you want). A few songs by artists like Meat Loaf and Rancid use a little bit of third conditional, but Meat Loaf's song only uses it once, and Rancid's song is difficult to understand and a bit too vulgar for a "family" language site like Sitzman ABC.

But then I finally noticed a Journey song that uses the 3rd conditional! You can listen to the song here and read the lyrics below, or you can go to the video's YouTube page to see the lyrics.

So, where is the 3rd conditional in this song? We'll identify that in a moment, but first let's do a quick review about when we use the different conditionals:

1st Conditional: real, probable situations
Example: "If I still feel hungry after dinner, I'll order a piece of pie for dessert." 
(In this case, there's a definite possibility that I will feel hungry, so I can use the first conditional.)

2nd Conditional: unreal, improbable situations
Example: "If I were a cat, I would sleep all day."
(This is obviously an unreal situation: I'm not a cat, and I'm not going to be a cat unless a science experiment goes terribly wrong.)

Now, for the 3rd Conditional:

3rd Conditional: unreal situations in the past
Example: "If I hadn't missed the bus, I could have arrived to class on time."
(This is how we can speculate about past events that could have happened differently. In this sentence, I missed the bus, but I'm imagining a different past condition and result.) 

The 3rd conditional is structured very similarly to the 2nd conditional, except that the 2nd conditional talks about the present and the future, but the 3rd talks about a fictional past. It also has two parts:

1. The "if" part (also called the "if phrase," "if clause," or "condition")
2. The "fantasy" part (also called the "would clause" or "result")

Let's look at another example:

If I hadn't come to Costa Rica, I might never have learned Spanish.

I can say this sentence in the 3rd conditional because I'm speculating about the past. I did come to Costa Rica, obviously, but I'm just imagining what my life might be like if I hadn't come to Costa Rica. We can usually invert the two parts, like in the other conditional tenses:

I might never have learned Spanish if I hadn't come to Costa Rica.

Both sentences mean the same thing, and the condition and result are the same in both.

Forming sentences in 3rd Conditional:  

The structure of a 3rd conditional sentence is very similar to a 2nd conditional sentence, with one important difference:

In the third conditional, the condition is written in a past perfect tense ("had / hadn't" + past participle), and the result is written using would / could / might / should + "have" + past participle

Here are some more examples:

If Shelly had known Mike was a vegetarian, she wouldn't have cooked steaks.
If Jim hadn't traveled to India, he wouldn't have met his wife in Bangalore.
If Ryan had thought this would be so complicated to explain, he wouldn't have written this post.
No one would have believed it if Costa Rica had won the 2006 World Cup.
We might not have had transmission problems if we had changed the transmission fluid earlier.
They probably wouldn't have gotten hypothermia while camping if they had brought warmer clothes.

In other words:

If (had/hadn't) + (past participle), (would/could/might) + (have) + (past participle) 

Notice that in many cases, like in the Journey or Taylor Swift songs, we often only say the result, and the condition is often implied or not mentioned.

Can you complete the following phrases?

Roger might have gotten a better grade on his exam if ___________ .
Elaine would have felt happy yesterday if ___________ .
If Timothy had read his email, he ___________ .
If the baby hadn't spilled its juice in the car, the parents ___________ a new car seat.

(You can find many more 3rd conditional exercises herehere, here, and here.)

For more practice, listen to the song again and try to find some phrases that use the third conditional (remember that in this song, it only uses the result, and not the condition). Here are the lyrics (I'll put the third conditional phrases at the end of this post so you can check your answers):

Journey - "It Could Have Been You"

We were so close yet so far away
I'd reach out, you'd be gone
Moments that still take my breath away
There's so much more to life than loving you
You don't need me, no...

I can't wait all my life, on a street of broken dreams
It could have been you my love (where are you now)
Oh I still wonder if you remember the night
It could have been you

Time washes over memories
I can't look back no more
Change has forsaken our promises
There's someone else for you to hold again
So please stop your crying

I can't wait all my life, on a street of broken dreams
It could have been you my love (where are you now)
Oh I still wonder if you remember the night
It could have been you

Remember, remember, girl I remember
I can't wait all my life, on a street of broken dreams
It could have been you my love (where are you now)
Oh I still wonder if you remember the night
It could have been you (where are you now)
Should have been you my love (where are you now)
It could have been you my love (where are you now)

Aah! An 80s pop song about heartbreak, regret, and lost love... the perfect place to use third conditional! Any time you talk about a past action that you wish you had done differently (a regret), then the third conditional can be your grammatical weapon of choice!

So, what phrases did you find in the 3rd conditional? Yep, they're basically "It could have been you" and "It should have been you." So as mentioned before, we often only use one half of the third conditional. 

That's about it for today-- maybe it wasn't "fun," but at least you got to listen to some Journey!

As usual, if you have any questions or feedback, please leave a comment below or contact me.

Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend!


  1. This is great, thank you! I've just gotten to a section teaching my teenage intermediate-level ESL students about the Third Conditional and while they can plug words into the formula, they have problems deducing the meaning of their sentences. They love music and I'm going to see if this helps them with their deductions.

  2. Hello Jess,

    Thanks for the note--and you're welcome!

    Actually, I have been thinking of changing this post a bit, since the song only really has the perfect modals, but not the complete conditional (with condition and result). I'm in the process of moving the site and will change some other things, but I'd also recommend the song "If It Hadn't Been For Love" by Adele (actually, I think it's a cover). In any case, she's pretty popular now, so that might even be "better" for teens than an awesome 80s Journey song, haha!

    Thanks again, and thanks for checking out the site!

  3. Here's a link to that Adele song's lyrics, in case you're interested:


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