In this blog, we’ll look at an example that demonstrates the difference between the non-past real and non-past unreal conditions.  After that, we’ll put conditional sentences into a larger context by joining them as a contradiction to a true statement and stating what would happen or would have happened were it otherwise.

The Lottery

If Sally goes to the store and buys a lottery ticket for the Saturday night lottery, she might walk out of the store thinking to herself, 

If I win the lottery, I will buy my own helicopter.

But hopefully she isn’t planning her future on winning the lottery.  On a different day, Sally may be at the store and choose not to buy a lottery ticket.  She may, however, notice that the prize is at $10M and walk out of the store thinking to herself,

If I won the lottery, I would buy my own helicopter.

What is the difference between if I win the lottery and if I won the lottery?  If your answer is that if I won the lottery is talking about the past, please go back and read the previous blog.  Or, just think about it for a minute…


What’s the difference?

It’s simply that in the first case, Sally has a lottery ticket.  She could win the lottery tomorrow.  In the second case, Sally does not have a lottery ticket.  She cannot win the lottery.  She is just imagining winning the lottery.  It would be the same as if she had read a story about someone winning the lottery and then imagined it was she who had won.  It is just an idea.

In the case where Sally actually has a lottery ticket, she waits for the draw.  Saturday comes and goes.  Unfortunately, Sally did not have the winning ticket.  She laments the fact thinking to herself,

If I had won the lottery, I would have bought my own helicopter.

Did Sally buy her own helicopter?  No.  Why not?  Because she didn’t win the lottery.

It is often the grammar that confuses language users when it comes to conditionals.   But for the non-past unreal (second condition) it’s the idea that is sometimes difficult.  Think of things that are not true and possibly could never be true.  You can still imagine them.  This is the non-past unreal:

If I were an angel, I would fly to heaven.

If I were an alien, I would help the human species.

If I lived for a thousand years, I would see many things.



Let’s recap and add a twist.

Here’s a true statement in the present:

He likes pizza.

Now change it to non-past untrue conditional statement and add a main clause:

If he didn’t like pizza, he wouldn’t eat it every day.

Finally, let’s join the two ideas with the word but to show a contradiction:

He likes pizza, but if he didn’t, he wouldn’t eat it every day.

Notice that when the if-clause refers back to the prior statement, we can drop/omit everything after the auxiliary (didn’t like pizza) to avoid repetition.  Otherwise, the pattern would be:

He likes pizza, but if he didn’t like pizza, he wouldn’t eat it every day.

And this pattern is fine, actually.  You might even prefer the repetition if you are explaining something to a child, or to anyone else, and you simply have got to make sure that there is no chance for misunderstanding, or when you want to ensure that they are paying attention because the message is so important.  In many cases, however, we don’t.

We often use have and had in conditional sentences, and this leads to confusion:

He has a cold.

If he didn’t have a cold, he would go dancing.     (non-past unreal)

He has a cold, but if he didn’t, he would go dancing.

The if-clause is if he didn’t.  So, if he didn’t…what?  If he didn’t have a cold.  But we drop everything after the auxiliary verb to avoid repetition.  This works will all verbs, but with to be it’s a little different:

She is very rich.

If she weren’t very rich, she would need a regular job.  (Remember, use were, not was)

She is very rich, but if she weren’t, she would need a regular job.  (omit very rich)

So, use did/didn’t or were/weren’t for a shortened if-clause to refer back to a prior clause that refers to the present.  No problem, right?

But what about the past?  Let’s see:

He didn’t work last night.

If he had worked last night, he would have come home late     (past perfect for the past)

Omit everything after the auxiliary (worked last night):

He didn’t work last night, but if he had,  he would have come home late.

Another example:

He had a cold last weekend.

If he hadn’t had a cold last weekend, he would have come to the party.

He had a cold last weekend, but if he hadn’t, he would have come to the party.

Consider the past with be:

She was tired last night.

If she hadn’t been tired last night, she might have joined us.

She was tired last night, but if she hadn’t been, she might have joined us.

Notice that we have to keep been because it’s also an auxiliary.  Here, it comes before an adjective (tired).  We can omit everything after been (tired last night).

Finally, let’s look at it with a past perfect continuous verb in the if-clause:

She was sleeping when I arrived.

If she hadn’t been sleeping when i arrived, I might have made tea for us.

She was sleeping when I arrived, but if she hadn’t been, I might have made tea for us.

Again, we omit everything after hadn’t been (sleeping when I arrived).

A Final Thought

There are other things we can say about conditionals, for example, we can join them to a desired outcome and suggestions and advice on how to achieve it:

If you want to pass the exam, why don’t you study?

If you need a day off, you’ll have to call the office.

If you’d like to improve your health, you should eat well and get enough sleep.

If-clauses are very useful.  With them, you can explain decisions, desires, and behaviour.  They also belong to a larger set of clauses called Adverb Clauses, which will be covered in an upcoming post.  Until then, I suggest you write sentences and examine them to make sure that not only are they grammatically correct, but also that they actually say what you want them to say.  Good luck 🙂

(Featured image by Stefan Keller; pixabay)

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