Third conditionals – Unreal conditionals for past time
Normally Conditional sentences have two parts (clauses)
One part (clause) which usually starts with “if” gives a condition, the other part gives us a result if that condition is true.
- If it had rained, (conditional clause) they would have stopped the race (result clause)
The Unreal conditionals are classified into:
- Second conditionals – If I had more money I would change my car .. (I don’t have more money so I can’t change my car)
- Third Conditionals – If Mary had studied harder she would have passed her exams ……… she didn’t study hard enough so she didn’t pass her exams.
These are unreal conditionals because they refer to situations that are untrue, impossible or hypothetical. The third conditional for example refers to a situation that is past and is impossible to change.
Use of the third conditional
The Third Conditional is used for actions and situations in past time, which means that they are finished and are impossible to change. With the third Conditional we imagine another result of a past action:
- If he had studied harder, he would have passed the exam (reality= the exam is finished, he didn’t pass it .. probably because he didn’t study very hard)
The normal form of this conditional form is:
- If + subject + had + past participle + complement, subject + would have (‘ve) + past participle + complement OR
- Subject + would have (‘ve) + past participle + complement + if + subject + had + past participle + complement.
- If John had recovered from his injury, he would’ve played in the game yesterday. / John would’ve played in the game yesterday if he had recovered from his injury (Reality: He didn’t recover from his injury yesterday, so he couldn’t play)
- If motorbikes had cost less when I was a student, I would have bought one. / I would have bought a motorbike when I was a student if they had cost less. (Reality: Motorbike were too expensive for me, so I couldn’t buy one)
In the “if” clause the verb form we use is the past perfect, but the time we refer to is past. The change from past to past perfect gives the sense of unreality.
Some people get confused when they see:
- If I had had enough time…
- If she had had the order in time…
- If you had had a shower before…
Had can be used as both an auxiliary verb and as the past participle when the principle verb is have.
Both the auxiliary had in the conditional clause and would in the result clause can be contracted to ‘d:
- If he’d had enough time he’d have gone to visit his mother.
- If he’d read the book he’d have known the answers in the English Literature exam
- when ‘d is followed by a past participle (he’d seen) then ‘d = had
- when ‘d is followed by an infinitive (he’d have..) then ‘d = would
In the if clause, would have is not used:
- If he would have had enough time yesterday he would have visited his mother
- If he would have read the book he’d have known the answers in the exam
We can replace would have with might have or could have in the result clause
- If he’d had enough time, he could have visited his mother.
- If he had read the book, he might have known the answers.