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Real vs. Unreal Conditional (Modal Use)

Express whether something is an open or a remote possibility

In Context

Jack – mowingWhen Jack came home Friday evening from work, he noticed his lawn was overgrown and needed some work. Because he works Monday through Friday as an electrician, his weekends are free to do as he pleases. This weekend, he will spend some time with friends and do some yard work. He will mow the lawn if he has time. 

Ted- restingWhen Ted came home Friday evening from work, he also noticed that his lawn was overgrown and needed work. Because he works six days a week as a healthcare worker, he has almost no free time and is usually exhausted on weekends. This weekend is his only opportunity to rest. He would mow the lawn if he had time. 

exhausted (Adj) – extremely tired

lawn (N) – a garden area with ornamental grass (usually cut short, evenly)

likely (Adj) – probable, possible to happen

mow (V) – cut grass with garden equipment (machine)

overgrown (Participial Adj) – the appearance is not neat (the grass high, uneven)

 

 

 
OPEN / REAL – CONDITIONALS

A real conditional includes two parts: if → then.  One action must happen before the other can happen. An open conditional is used when the likelihood of something happening is in the real world, a factual one.

A present tense verb in the condition phrase (If he has time) expresses that the situation can happen. If it does, the activity in the other clause will happen. A modal —will, can, may, or should— is used in the main clause.

A past verb in the condition phrase and the main clause expresses that there was a open possibility that the condition occurred. (The speaker doesn't know for sure.) And if it did, the speaker infers that the action in the main clause occurred too.

IF-PHRASE   1ST ACTION MAIN CLAUSE   2ND ACTION
PRESENT CONDITION PRESENT / FUTURE 

If he has time today,

If he is feeling energetic,

The possibility is good.

Jack will¹ mow the grass.

Jack will clean up his yard.

He doesn't know if he will have time yet.

PAST CONDITION PAST

If he had time yesterday,

If he was feeling energetic,

There was a good possibility.  I don't know if he did; I wasn't there.

Jack mowed the grass.

Jack cleaned up his yard.

He did or didn't do it depending on whether the condition was true. We are concluding or inferring what happened.

 

REMOTE / UNREAL – CONDITIONALS

An unreal conditional has two parts: if → then. One action must happen before the other can happen. A remote conditional is used when the likelihood of something happening is in a distant world, contrary-to-fact.

A preterit² verb in the condition phrase (If he had time) and a modal verb in the main clause [would + verb] expresses that the condition has a poor chance of happening; therefore, the activity in the main clause is unlikely to happen.

A past perfect verb in the condition clause (If he had had time) and the past modal [would have + verb] expresses that the failed condition was the reason or excuse for the situation in the main clause not happening.                                        

IF-PHRASE   1ST ACTION MAIN CLAUSE   2ND ACTION
PRESENT CONDITION PRESENT / FUTURE 

If he had time,

If he felt rested,

The probability is poor. (perhaps in another world)

Ted would mow the grass.

Ted would clean up his yard.

He isn't going to mow or clean up the yard.

PAST CONDITION PAST

If he had had time,

If he had felt rested,

The probability was poor; the action or situation did not happen. This is the reason / excuse for the action in the main clause not happening.

Ted would have mowed the grass.

Ted would have cleaned up the yard.

He didn't mow the grass or clean up.

 

¹ modals which can express future timing: will, can, may, might, shall, should

² preterit – a verb form, which is often used to express past timing, but may also express irrealis, an imaginary or hypothetical situation, contrary to reality: I wish I were there. If I had money, I would buy a plane ticket. (This preterit form is also called subjunctive.)

energetic (Adj) – having energy, physical or mental strength

if  (connective preposition) — heads a prepositional phrase that takes a clause as its complement. (In current linguistic description, a preposition is not limited to taking a noun as its complement.  A preposition can take a number of structures its complement. Call me if you are ready. (Cls) Call me if ready. (Adj), Call me if in the mood. (PP)  See Prepositional Complements.)

infer (V) – to guess by reasoning or logic; form an opinion that something is probably true based on the information or evidence 

irrealis (grammatical mood) – imaginary; contrary to reality; the situation or action is not known to have happened as the speaker is talking

likely (Adj) – likely to happen – probably will happen, 50% or better or neutral (50 / 50); unlikely – poor chance of happening

open conditional — in linguistic description, the name for a real or true conditional is "open" because the possibility of occurring is probable.

remote conditional — in linguistic description, the name for an unreal, untrue, or hypothetical conditional is "remote" because they denote distance — both in formality and reality. 

 

 

Often Confused — Conditional if vs. Routine if

CONDITIONAL — SINGLE OCCURENCE

Conditional if is used for a single particular event or situation. If X happens, then Y happens next. (if, unless)

If Hurricane Ella comes our way, we will close and cover up our windows.

If the authorities allow it, we can open our windows and go outside again.

TEMPORAL PREPOSITION — MULTIPLE OCCURENCES

Routine if is used for multiple activities or situations. Anytime X happens, then Y happens. (when, whenever, anytime)

If / When / Whenever a big storm comes our way, we close the windows.

Before a big storm comes our way, we close up and cover the windows. After the storm passes, we open them.

 

Related pages: If vs. When and Before, After, When

 

 

 

 

 

If → Then Constructions

Request, explain, excuse, analyze, speculate, strategize and more

 

 

if → then Constructions

IF THEN CONSTRUCTIONS   PRESENT VERBS

if → then constructions with present verbs express "open" (real) conditional situations. if → then constructions can also imply (but not clearly state) other meanings: requests (expectation of action), cause and effect (the second action is a logical response to the situation), plans (logical sequences for action), analysis (thinking about options to take or avoid) and setting the background for a question.                                

CONDITIONAL   IF → THEN

If it rains today, call me and we'll reschedule. (a true condition – a singular event)

 

CAUSE AND EFFECT   IF → THEN

If it rains, I take an umbrella.   (a logical response to a situation)

When it rains, I take an umbrella.  ("when" – multiple, time-related, routine)

INDIRECT REQUEST   IF → THEN

If you will send a check, (we'll get started on the work.)

(In some cases the main clause is not included.)

Please send us a check. Then, we will get started.

SOFTENER PHRASE   IF → THEN

If it's not too much trouble, will you please get me some coffee.

If you don't mind, please smoke outside. 

If your up, would you turn on the printer.

SEQUENCE OF ACTIONS   IF → THEN

If they can get the plans to us by 2 p.m., we'll copy them and send them off the contractor. (First, second, then, next…)

If he moves the ball to the corner, block it and pass it to the goalie, then he can kick it in.

PERSUADE   IF → THEN

If I am to help you, you must try a little harder.

If you expect to graduate, you will have to study harder and put aside other distractions.

If you improve your grades, we'll help you pay for college.

BACKGROUND INFO   IF → THEN

If our company goes bankrupt, will a larger company buy us out?

If the president is impeached, can Congress convict him?

If the drought continues, should we cut back on water use?

If we run out of sour cream, can I use yogurt?

STRATEGY   IF → THEN

What if ² you see him, will you tell him my secret? (No, I won't!)

What will you do if he suddenly appears on your doorstep?

What if he suddenly appears on your doorstep? (shortened)

 

IF THEN CONSTRUCTIONS  PRETERITE VERBS

if → then constructions with preterit verbs express "remoteness" (distance from this reality). They are often used in conditionals, but also in other situations, for example, if → then constructions can indirectly state: polite requests (giving the other person space to say "no"), explanations or excuses (in a "perfect world"), reviewing options not taken an accident ("if I had done this differently"), and exploring options by imagining them first.

CONDITIONAL   IF → THEN

 If it had rained, I would have taken my umbrella. (unreal condition– singular event)

CAUSE AND EFFECT   IF → THEN

If it rains, I take an umbrella.  ("when" – multiple, time-related, routine)

Whenever it rained, I took an umbrella.  ("when" , time-related, past routine)

 

POLITE REQUEST   IF → THEN

If you would send³ a check, we could get started on the work.

If you see him, would you tell him I called. 

If you will step this way, I will show you to your table.

SOFTENER PHRASE  IF → THEN

If you wouldn't mind³, I would like to leave early.

If you would³, I could use a ride to the train station.

If you would be³ so kind, would you give me a a call later tonight?

ANALYSIS OF PAST ACTIONS IF → THEN

If they had sent us a check, we could have purchased materials and started working. (It wasn't my fault.  "could have")

If he had blocked the corner kick, then I could have passed the ball to the goalie, and we would have scored. But he didn't.

PROBLEM-SOLVING IF → IF THEN

If  consumers would buy³ electric cars, we would have cleaner air.

If the car manufacturer had tested its cars more thoroughly, consumers wouldn't have had so many repair costs.

If the city planners hadn't built a sea wall, we would be flooded now.

SPECULATION IF → IF THEN

If our company went bankrupt, would a larger company buy us out?

~ If the president were impeached, could Congress convict him?

* If the drought continued, should we cut back on water use?

* If we ran out of sour cream, could I use yogurt?

STRATEGY IF → IF THEN

What if ² you saw him, would you tell him my secret? (No, I wouldn't!)

What would you do if he suddenly appeared on your doorstep?

What if he suddenly appeared on your doorstep? (shortened)

 

  

"The remote construction differs in meaning from open in that it entertains the condition as being satisfied in a world which is potentially different from the actual world." (Huddleston 8 §14.2.1)

~When the context of the open conditional requires a real world, immediate answer,  hypothetical wording sounds odd:  the more time-sensitive (urgent) the question, the less hypothetical the wording.

hypothetical (Adj) – based on a situation that is not real; imaging the situation in a distant or another world

if → then – in mathematics, hypothesis — conclusion; If (hypothesis) – then (conclusion)

¹ if vs. in the event, in caseCondition vs. Precautionary Action

² what if – expression for posing a hypothetical situation;  What if God was one of us?  (song) 

³ If you would (V modal) – In these examples, would expresses mood: If you will, if you would expresses if you are willing (agree) to do something. Note that "if they bought electric" cars focuses on the action, but "if they would buy electric cars" focuses on their attitude toward (acceptance of) the technology.

((Huddleston 8 §14) (Swan 257)

Also see Past Hypotheticals 1 (The Concorde) and Past Hypotheticals 2 (The Titanic)

 

 

 

Modals in the Main Clause

Express opinion about the second action

 

 

Will / Would, May / Might, Can / Could

REAL

In a real (open) conditional structure, a modal — will, shall, may, might, could, or should expresses the speakers opinion or thought regarding the second action. See Modal Summary for examples of meanings expressed by modals.                            

PRESENT RELATED ACTIVITY OR SITUATION

If he has time,

Jack will /may /can / should mow the grass.

OPEN

"This situation has a good chance of occurring

this is the related action that will occur.

ACTUAL

This situation

triggers (brings about) this situation happening.

PAST RELATED ACTIVITY OR SITUATION

If he had time,

Jack mowed the grass.

 

OPEN

"This situation had a good chance of occurring

this is the (logically) related action that occurred.

ACTUAL

This situation

triggered (brought about) this situation happening. (Speaker doesn't know if it occurred, but speculates.)

UNREAL

In an unreal (remote) conditional structure, modal would or would have expresses an alternate, perhaps ideal world. This "remote" wording is used to soften an unpleasant response, apologize for failure or consider an alternate option. See Past Hypotheticals for examples. 

PRESENT RELATED ACTIVITY OR SITUATION

If he had time,

Ted would mow the grass.

REMOTE THINKING

"This action or situation, in an another world...

will cause this related activity to occur."

ACTUAL SITUATION

This situation or action has a poor chance of occurring.

This outcome has a poor chance of occurring.

PAST RELATED ACTIVITY OR SITUATION

If he had had time,

Ted would have mowed the grass.

REMOTE THINKING

"This action or situation, in an another world...

caused this related activity to occur.

 

ACTUAL SITUATION

This situation did not occur

so this related activity did not happen.

 

See Degrees of Certainty. 

likelihood – probability, favorability

trigger (V) – one action causes another action to happen immediately afterward

will – sure, certain

 

 

 

 

Modals in the Condition Clause

Express opinion or attitude about a condition

 

 

Modals with Real & Unreal

REAL

Can, could, may, might express the probability of the condition happening. (The condition must occur before the other activity in the main clause can occur.)

LIKELY CONDITION PRES & FUTURE – RESULT CLAUSE

If he has vacation time,

Jack will take the day off.  

*If he will have vacation time,

 

If he can get some time off,
— sometimes he is able to.

 

If he may do so,
— sometimes he is permitted to.

 

  PAST – RESULT CLAUSE

If he had vacation time,

Jack took the day off.  

*If he would have vacation time,

 

If he could get some time off,
— sometimes he was able to.

 

If he might do so,
— sometimes he was permitted to.

 

UNREAL

Could, could have, might or might have express unlikely possibility for the condition to be real (true). Thus, the second action in the main clause will not occur.

UNLIKELY CONDITION PRES & FUTURE – RESULT CLAUSE

If he had time today,

Jack would mow the grass. 

*If he would have time.

 

If he could have time.
— he's not able to.

 

If he might have time.
— he's not permitted to.

 

  PAST – RESULT CLAUSE

If he had had time,

Jack would have mowed the grass.  

*If he would have had time,

 

If he could have had more time,
— he wasn't able to.

 

If he might have had time,
— he was not permitted to.

 

 

likelihood – probability, favorability

will – sure, certain

may, might, could – probable

*not used

 

 

 

 

Common Mistakes

Errors and Solutions

 

Error and Solution

ERROR

I would do my homework if I would have more time.

(Not incorrect, but uncommonly used.)

I would have finished the test if I would have had a little more time.

SOLUTION

I would do my homework if I had more time.

If I had more time, I would do my homework.

(The simple past verb form is preferred in the if-phrase.)  

I would have finished the test if I had had more time.

I would have finished the test if they might have given us more time. (Might have can be used to politely state a critique or review that is negative. "no permission")

I would have finished the test if I could have found another pencil. (Could have adds information about an unavailable item, "no ability")

 

 

 

 

 

► Show Grammar Notes and Works Cited ▼ Hide Grammar Notes

Grammar Notes (Advanced)

Traditional Grammar and Linguistic Description

 

 

Traditional and Linguistic Descriptions

TRADITIONAL GRAMMAR

In traditional grammar, a sentence with a conditional clause with a true situation  is a real conditional, and an untrue situation is an unreal condition, a hypothetical condition or an imaginary present, past or future.

An if clause refers to a condition — something which must happen so that something else can happen.   (Swan 257)
if   conjunction  "We use special structures with if when we are talking about unreal situations — things that will probably not happen, situations that are untrue or imaginary… We use past tenses and would to 'distance' our language from reality." (Swan 258)

If-clauses "also called adverb clauses present possible conditions. The main clause expresses result." (Azar 17-6, 20-2)

REED-KELLOGG DIAGRAM 

We take an umbrella if it is raining.

LINGUISTIC DESCRIPTION

Conditional construction: if + content clause—protasis; matrix (main) clause— apodosis (Huddleston 8 §14)

if  — preposition that takes a content clause as its subordinate complement.  PP [P + finite clause]

open: If you come on Sunday, we'll have dinner together.
open: If you came on Sundays, you always had dinner with them.

remote: if you came tonight, we would have dinner together.  (preterit, irrealis)
remote: if you had come tonight, we would have had dinner together.  (past preterit, irrealis)

If I was / were…  preterit verb form. Irrealis (Huddleston 3 §1.7)    

TREE DIAGRAM

We take an umbrella if it is raining.     

 

Categories:  NP –noun phrase; N – noun; VP – verb phrase; V – verb; Detdeterminer; PP – prepositional phrase; P – preposition; AdvP – adverb phrase; Adv – adverb; AdjP– adjective phrase; Adj – adjective; Subord – Subordinator;  Coord – Coordinator; Interj – Interjection

Functions: Subject:  Subject,   Predicate: Predicator (V) Complement:  elements required by the verb: object, indirect object, predicative complement  Adjuncts: (optional modifiers) Adj,  Adv

 

Works Cited

  • Azar, Betty Schrampfer, and Stacy A. Hagen. Understanding and Using English Grammar. 4th ed., Pearson Education, 2009.
  • Biber, Douglas, and Stig Johansson, et al. Longman Grammar Of Spoken And Written English. Pearson Education, 1999.
  • Huddleston, Rodney D., and Geoffrey K. Pullum. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge UP, 2002.
  • O'Brien, Elizabeth. "Diagramming Sentences Exercises: Chapter 1." English Grammar Revolution. 2016. english-grammar-revolution.com/english-grammar-exercise.html. Accessed on 10 Oct. 2016.
  • Swan, Michael. Practical English Usage. 3rd ed., Oxford UP, 2005.
  • "Sentence diagram." Wikipedia. 28 Sep. 2016. Accessed on 10 Oct. 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Practice 1

Real or Unreal

 

 

Read the paragraph above about Jack and Ted.

Is the situation likely to happen (real) or unlikely to happen.  likely — probably will happen, probably is true.   unlikely — probably won't happen, probably isn't true.

  1. Select the response from the list that best completes the sentence. 
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the "check" or "check 1-10" button.

 

1.
Jack likes the way his lawn looks if he mows it weekly.
       

2.
Ted would like the way his lawn looked if he mowed it more often.
   

3.
Ted would prefer to work shorter hours if he could.
   

4.
Jack would probably feel like Ted if he had to work six days a week.
   

5.
If Jack referees a Little League game on Saturday, he can mow his lawn on Sunday instead.
   

6.
If Ted has a three-day weekend, he mows his lawn.
   

7.
Jack would also like to rest in a hammock if he had a hammock.
   

8.
If Ted had a power lawn mower like Jack, maybe he would enjoy mowing his lawn.
   

9.
Jack would loan Ted his lawn mower if he asked.
   

10.
Jack could loan his lawn mower to Ted if Ted would loan Jack his hammock.
   

 

 

 

 

 

Practice 2

Real or Imagined

Aiden
 

 

Read

Aiden bikes to school.  It takes him fifteen minutes to get there. He doesn't bike when it rains. He walks instead. Then it takes him thirty minutes. He doesn't like to walk because his books are heavy, but sometimes he can't help it.

Aiden's friend drives.  Aiden can call him and ask his friend for a ride.  However, he must call him the night before.  Sometimes, it rains unexpectedly in the morning. So Aiden walks in the rain. Fortunately, Aiden has a good umbrella and Aiden likes to walk.

can't help – cannot avoid

forecast – predict something, especially weather

get to school – travel to school

in time – within the time, not from the beginning, but still able to do the activity

on time – at the beginning set time of an activity

 

 

 

Read the conditional sentence and answer the question.

likely — probably will happen, probably is true.   unlikely — probably won't happen, probably isn't true.

  1. Select the response from the list that best completes the sentence. 
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the "check" or "check 11-16" button.

 

11.
If the weather is favorable, Aiden bikes to school.
Does Aiden bike to school?
       

12.
If it's going to rain, Aiden walks.
Is Aiden going to walk?
                     

13.
This morning it suddenly started raining.  If Aiden called his friend, it would be too late to get a ride.
Is Aiden going to call his friend?
                     

14.
If Aiden had started walking earlier, he would get to school on time this morning.
Did Aiden begin walking early?
        

15.
Aiden will make it in time to class if he walks fast.
Will Aiden walk fast?
        

16.
If Aiden had checked the weather forecast the night before, he wouldn't be walking in the rain now.
Did Aiden check the weather forecast?