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The third conditional: explanation

Conditionals are structures in English (usually using if) that allow us to talk about possible or hypothetical situations, and their results. You can review all basic conditionals here.

In English, we use the third conditional to talk about unreal past actions and their unreal results.

Using the third conditional, we can talk about an alternative, imaginary past. We change something or imagine something different about the past, and then imagine the result.

Listen to this micro-listening to hear an example:

, .

This sentence is totally imaginary: in reality, I did go to Cardiff University, where I did meet my wife. The third conditional allows me to talk about the unreal past.

Notice the structure of the third conditional:

  • If + past perfect, would have + past participle

Third conditional examples

Have a go at these 10 micro-listening exercises to hear the third conditional being used in context.

Third conditional example 1

, .

In reality, we got lost because you forgot to bring the map.

Third conditional example 2

, .

In reality, I didn’t get much sleep because the neighbours were making so much noise.

Third conditional example 3

Third conditional example 4

Third conditional example 5

Third conditional example 6

Third conditional example 7

Third conditional example 8

Third conditional example 9

Third conditional example 10

Now that you’ve heard lots of examples of the third conditional being used in context, have a go at forming your own.

It’s very easy to practise this – think of any event, action or decision in your life, then change it, and imagine the result.

It could be something big – e.g. If I hadn’t had that teacher at school, I wouldn’t have gone to university and become an engineer.

It could also be something small – e.g. If I had eaten breakfast this morning, I wouldn’t have needed a snack before lunch.

Members – write your third conditional examples in the comments below, and I’ll check and give feedback. Any questions or doubts, feel free to ask!


Photo of Cardiff Bay by Photo by Jonny Gios on Unsplash

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