English grammar - second conditional

- - Second conditional


If + past + would + verb


We use second conditional to talk about situations or actions in the present or future which are not likely to happen or are imaginary, hypothetical or impossible.
  • If I won the lottery, I would travel around the world and buy a castle in Norway.
    I think it is very unlikely that I will win the lottery. However, in this unlikely condition, I will travel and buy a castle
  • If I wasn't watching TV now, I would be playing football.
    I am watching TV, but I am imagining an alternative activity I would be doing if I wasn't watching TV
  • If I were an alien, I would be able to travel around the universe.
    It is impossible for me to be an alien. However, I am imagining what I would do in this situation

Additional points

We can use other modal verbs in place of would.
  • If I had more money, I could buy a car.
    Buying a car would be possible
  • If I won the lottery, I might give all the money to charity.
    Giving the money to charity is only a possibility

Ideas for teaching second conditional

How do you teach second conditional? Add your idea »

The easiest (and probably most used) example is the lottery...

Start off by asking students about the lotto in their country. You could even make the whole lesson themed around this, maybe with a text about the lottery to start off for some reading comprehension. (Do a search for "lottery" on the internet and you'll find plenty of news stories about people who've won big).

Next, ask students what they would do if they won the lottery. Don't worry about correct form in their answers at this stage - the important thing is that they get the gist of the question (I'm yet to meet a student who hasn't understood the gist of "If you won the lottery, what would you do?") Develop some of their answers, maybe making another question out of it: "Oh, so if you bought a new car, what kind of car would you buy?"

After a time, ask them if they think they are going to win the lottery in the future, or if it's just imagination. Most, hopefully, will say it's just imagination, it's extremely unlikely they'll ever win.

Now, highlight the form on the board, and then ask them some other examples: "If you lived on Mars, what would you eat?" "If you were an animal, which animal would you be?" etc etc. This time, make sure they answer with the correct form.

Then, have them think of five questions to ask their partner. By making them form their own questions, you are making sure that they understand we're talking about the future, and about hypothetical situations.

A board game with second conditional questions works well for some freer practice in groups.

I teach second conditional by using cards in which you present hypothetical situations. You write half of the conditional and the students have to complete them. You can do this activity individually or in groups.

Listen to the song "If I had a million dollars" by the Barenaked Ladies. It's full of second conditional. Do a gap fill as you listen to it.

When students have grasped the structure, it's fun to play "Crazy Sentences". In this game, the class is divided in two. Half write one part of the conditional sentence (the "if" part). The other half write the second part on separate slips of paper. You gather the slips (maintaining the groups) in two bags or hats. One by one each student takes a pair and reads aloud the "crazy sentence". Some examples are: "If I had a dog I would give it to charity." If I travelled to Mars, I would buy twenty pairs of shoes." It brings lots of fun to the classroom and can be played using other grammar structures. Hope you liked it! Virginia.

I use a powerpoint slide show with normal situations, and then unlikely situations, introducing the second conditional and then eliciting answers. Also songs are really useful. Specially Mariah Carey´s "All I've ever wanted" and Eric Clapton's "Tears in heaven".

I use the song If I were a carpenter by Johnny and June Cash...
It starts:
Johnny Cash: If I were a carpenter
And you were a lady,
Would you marry me anyway?
Would you have my baby?
June Carter: If you were a carpenter,
And I were a lady,
I'd marry you anyway.
I'd have your baby.

Using images (from clip art) and a matching activity.
I organize images on the left of the page and the matching exercise on the right. One of the images, for instance is of a man thinking, and inside the thinking bubble I place a picture of a pop star. I place "if clauses" on the top line of a table and their main clauses on the bottom line. Students match each "if clause" with its proper main clause, using the pictures as a guide. Once the activity is done, draw students' attention to the structure of the sentences and their meaning. I use a similar activity to teach first conditional, so students are already familiar with the idea of conditional sentences... condition, result, etc. Finaly, we compare structures and uses of both types of conditionals.

You can ask your students to do a questionnaire about funny (imaginary) situations and give them a,b,c options.

For example: If you knew your sister's most important secret, would you...
a. tell everybody
b. keep it a secret
c. ask her for money to keep it a secret

Students like this kind of activity! Good luck!

I use "Into My Arms" by Nick Cave. Hand out the lyrics with gaps in it for the students to fill in. Get them to listen to the song and go through the lyrics. They understand the conditional quickly because the song explains the unreality of the situation very well.

You can use If I were a boy by Beyonce... it's full of second conditional!

If your class is a good level, a good song challenge is Gwen Stefani's If i were a rich girl - erase all verbs and they can spend ten minutes predicting, then listen twice. I always include a few culture questions at the the end too, like where is Harajuku and why are the girls famous? (if you don't know, google image harajuku and you'll get some great visuals to explain the answer with). Also, good vocab like clean out, mansion, fancy...
Sabrina Espino

I generally use the song "Tears in Heaven" by Eric Clapton. The students are moved by its meaning and understand the use of the conditional easily.

To facilitate conversation, I create role-plays in which people complain to each other.

Someone is burning dead leaves in their garden and the smoke is going into the neighbour's kitchen. The neighbour knocks on their door and complains:
"I would appreciate it if you stopped / if you didn't burn the leaves right now"...

To review the previously taught first conditional, students could make threats:
"If you don't stop, I will call the police"

To review the previously taught zero conditional, they could say "moral" things to "give a lesson" to the naughty neighbour:
"when/if the wind blows my way, any smoke you produce comes directly into my kitchen, are you aware of this?

How about this...
1st you practice regrets (based on pictures): for example a woman with a sunburn: i wish I hadn't stayed so much in the sun / I wish I had used lotion, and so on, lots of examples, could go on for a quarter of the class as a brainstorming activity for various pictures.

...then you practice regrets with alternatives: I should have done this or that instead of what i did... after you practice this for another quarter of the class, you combine them: - replace should with would
- if i had done x, i would have y...

I always write down on the board a question like "What would you do if...?" and then write some possible incomplete questions like ...president of your country, ...the lottery, ...arrested etc so they copy them down and then write the possible verb in the correct tense (past). They then compare with their partners which verb is the best, I check and after that they stand up and start interviewing their classmates asking more questions such as, why, how, what etc (provided as useful language on the board). Meanwhile they make notes about their partners' answers. Finally, when they finish, I ask for volunteers to read some answers they find interesting so they can put into practice the language!!

I start my lesson with a reading of Harry Potter (there was a newspaper article about the latest movie). I then proceed to ask the questions: what would you do:
if you were invisible?
if you could cast spells?
if you could fly?
if you had magical powers?
I end the lesson with students writing a composition about any of these fantasies.
Pieter Boonzaier MCIL

Songs useful for teaching second conditional:
If I had a cent
If my true love he was gone
If I get locked up tonight


I taught it recently. For this lesson I recorded different teachers replying to my question 'what would you do, if you won a lottery of one thousand million dollars?' I played it in my class and said this is how they are expressing their wishes and asked them to tell me who the speakers are and they named their teacher. Then I gave them a hat full of 2nd conditional topics and asked them to pass it on while I played music. I stopped music for them to pick a topic and speak about it. My students loved the lesson.
Lubna Shaiq

I use songs as a listening exercise that leads into the structure. For lower profieciency students I use Jim Croce's Time In A Bottle. It's slow and clear. For mid-level students I use Cher's If I Could Turn Back Time. It's faster and there's more music for them to listen through. For higher proficiency students I use Tyrone Davis' If I Could Turn Back The Hands of Time. This song uses the structure with the if clause after the main clause as well as before.

I always ask... "if you could fly like a bird, what would you do? where could you go?, where would you fly?"

I teach 2nd Conditional by explaining it as the "Alladin Conditional". Alladin has a magic lamp with a genie in it, who can do anything in the present. So he rubs the lamp when he has a problem and the genie can make it happen.

You can ask questions like "What would Alladin do if he were/was rich?" Answer: "He would buy Jasmine a new house." Etc etc. This sets up the 2nd conditional as being COUNTER-FACTIVE and UNLIKELY, but not IMPOSSIBLE (if you have a genie).

This explanation transitions very nicely to the 3rd conditional, where you can explain that not even a genie has the power to change the past. For that you need a TIME MACHINE. It works really well, and it is more memorable than using the number system of naming them.

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