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Real vs. Unreal Conditional (Modal Use)

Express whether something is likely or unlikely to occur

 

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)

 

 

 
REAL / OPEN / TRUE  – CONDITIONALS

A conditional includes two parts: if → then.  One action must happen before the other can happen. For a real conditional, the probability of happening is good (open).

A present tense verb in the condition phrase (If he has time) expresses that the situation is likely to happen. As a result, the activity in the other clause will happen. Modal —will, can, may, or should— is used in the main clause.

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

If he has time today,

If he is feeling energetic,

present tense form

Jack will¹ mow the grass.

Jack will clean up his yard.

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

LIKELY CONDITION PAST

If he had time yesterday,

If he was feeling energetic,

past tense form

Jack mowed the grass.

Jack cleaned up his yard.

He did or didn't do it depending on whether the condition was true.

UNREAL / REMOTE / TRUE – CONDITIONALS

A conditional has two parts: if → then. One action must happen before the other can happen. For an unreal conditional, the probability of happening is poor (remote²).

A preterit³ verb in the condition phrase (If he had time) expresses that the situation is unlikely to happen. As a result, the activity in the other clause will not happen. Modal would is used in the main clause (2nd action).

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

If he had time,

If he felt rested,

present "irrealis" (subjunctive)

Ted would mow the grass.

Ted would clean up his yard.

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

UNLIKELY CONDITION PAST

If he had had time,

If he had felt rested,

past "irrealis" (subjunctive)

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 remote conditional — in linguistic description, the name for an unreal, untrue, or hypothetical conditional. Conditional statements with preterit verbs and modal forms are called "remote" because they denote distance — both in formality and reality.  See next section.

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

³ 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. (also called subjunctive)

A present/future real conditional is expressed with a present tense verb in the if-phrase and a modal (will, can, may) in the main clause. A past real conditional is expressed with a past tense (preterit) verb in both the if-phrase and the the main clause.

A present/future unreal conditional is expressed with a preterit³ verb in the if-phrase and a modal (would, could, might) in the main clause.  A past unreal conditional is expressed with a pluperfect verb in the if-phrase (If he had had) and a past modal in the main clause (he would have mowed).

energetic (Adj) – having energy (physical and 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 necessary. (Adj) See Prepositional Complements.)

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

likely (Adj) – probable, possible; unlikely (negative) – improbable, impossible

 

 

 

Often Confused:  Conditional vs. Time-related Activities / Situations

CONDITIONAL — SINGLE OCCURENCE

One situation depends on the other happening first. (if, unless)

If this hurricane comes our way tomorrow, we will have to drive inland.

If the authorities give us a "green light", we can return to our home later.

 

TEMPORAL PREPOSITION — MULTIPLE OCCURENCES

One activity routinely is time-related to the other. (when, before, after)

If / Whenever a big storm comes our way, we close up and cover the windows.

If/ When the storm passes, we open up the windows again.

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

 

See If vs. When | Before, After, When.

 

 

 

 

 

Additional Uses for Conditional Statements

Request, plan, analyze, speculate, and more

 

 

Real (open) vs. Unreal (remote) Conditionals

REAL CONDITIONAL"OPEN"

In addition to the literal (word for word) meaning of if → then statements (one action is dependent on the other happening first), conditional statements can imply (but not clearly state) other meanings: requests (expectation of action), plans (logical sequences for action), analysis (thinking about options to take or avoid) and setting the background for a question.

LITERAL USE   IF → THEN

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

If it rains, I take an umbrella.  (when – multiple events, general timing)

MAKE AN INDIRECT / IMPLIED REQUEST

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

(Please send us a check.)

SOFTEN A REQUEST WITH AN INTRODUCTORY PHRASE

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.

LAYOUT A PLAN WITH A SEQUENCE OF ACTIONS

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

If¹ he moves the ball to the corner, block it and pass it to the goalie.

[In the event / In case]¹ precautionary action

DISCOURAGE OR ENCOURAGE ACTION

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.

PROVIDE BACKGROUND SITUATION FOR A QUESTION

If the company goes bankrupt, will a larger company buy them out?

If the president is impeached, can the house convict him?

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

UNREAL CONDITIONAL"REMOTE"

Conditional statements with preterit verbs and modal forms are called "remote" because they denote distance — both in formality and reality. Some uses include: polite requests , explanations or excuses, analysis of hypothetical situations, and exploring options by imagining them first.                                                                                                                                                                  

LITERAL USE   IF → THEN

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

MAKE A POLITE REQUEST

If you would send 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.

SOFTEN A POLITE REQUEST WITH AN INTRODUCTORY PHRASE

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

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

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

EXPLAIN OR EXCUSE A FAILURE IN A SEQUENCE OF ACTIONS

If they had sent us a check, we could have purchased materials and started working.

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.

(It wasn't my fault.  "could have", "should have", "would have")

ANALYZE ERRORS or SUCCESSES / PROBLEM-SOLVE

If  consumers would buy 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.

EXPLORE HYPOTHETICAL SITUATIONS / SPECULATE

If I were to send you a check, would you actually use it to buy materials?

What if² you saw him, would you tell him my secret? (Of course, I wouldn't!)

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

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

  

hypothetical (Adj) – based on a situation that is not real; imaginary

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) 

((Huddleston 8 §14) (Swan 257)

 

 

 

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 — is used in the main clause. The choice of modal expresses the speakers opinion or thought regarding the second action.

PRESENT MODAL + ACTION

If he has time,

Jack will mow the grass.

Jack may mow the grass.

Jack can mow the grass.

PAST MODAL + ACTION

If he had time,

Jack mowed the grass.

Jack would mow the grass.

Jack could mow the grass.

 

UNREAL

In an unreal (remote) conditional structure, modal would expresses that the action is hypothetical (will not actually take place because the condition will not happen.)                                               

PRESENT PAST MODAL + ACTION

If he had time,

 

Ted would mow the grass.

(He didn't have time, so he didn't mow it.)

 

 

PAST PAST PERFECT MODAL + ACTION

If he had had time,

Ted would have mowed the grass.

 

See Degrees of Certainty. 

likelihood – probability, favorability

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?