• Teaching Hypothetical Conditionals in E...

Teaching Hypothetical Conditionals in English: 2nd, 3rd and mixed

In this essay I am going to examine the teaching of hypothetical meaning to upper intermediate level learners.

The main reason to look at language to express hypothetical meaning is that it is used in such a wide variety of situations and we imagine, hypothesize, and pretend with great frequency. Understanding these meanings and being able to express them is useful for upper intermediate level learners and ultimately meets their needs.

I have observed that my upper intermediate level learners in Spain have difficulties understanding and expressing hypothetical meaning. I often find that my learners seem to have been taught this language only in the limited context of what coursebooks refer to as the second and third conditionals. I would agree with Willis when he says “the second conditional is taught as if though it had some life of its own.”This view limits students’ understanding and use of the variety of ways hypothetical meaning can be expressed.

At the same time, I believe it is fundamental that learners see that there is something common to all the ways of expressing negative truth value: backshifting. It is important for learners to internalize this rule in order to understand and generate hypothetical meaning



Expressing hypothetical meaning involves what Leech calls ‘Negative Truth Commitment.’ He says “the happening described did not, does not, or will not take place.”Within this concept of negative truth value lie various meanings described below:

When we refer to past time, we refer to something that is contrary to fact.

I wouldn’t have said that to them.

When we refer to the present time, we refer to something that is contrary to assumption.

If she knew the truth, she wouldn’t be sitting there with that stupid look on her face.

When we refer to future time, we refer to something that is contrary to expectation.

She’d only go if it was for free.

We can also hypothesize about the possibility of events.

When we refer to the past, we refer to something that was possible but did not occur.

You could’ve gotten killed!

When we refer to the present, we refer to something that is possible but not necessarily expected to happen.

Tom might already be at the venue.


To make hypothetical meaning we use backshifting to express distance from the real world.We can also use hypothetical would in a similar fashion. Thornbury says that “grammar is a tool for making meaning” and I see backshifting and hypothetical would as tools for hypothesizing. The table below shows how the auxiliary verb will “moves back” to expresses hypothetical meaning:

I’ll talk to her.

will + infinitive

expresses a factual decision

I’d talk to her.

would + infinitive

expresses an imaginary situation

I would have talked to her.

would have + past participle

expresses an event contrary to fact in the past

Conditional sentences

Conditional sentences can express hypothetical meaning and consist of a main clause with would + verb and a subordinate clause introduced with if or a conjunction.

Hypothetical conditional sentences can refer to the past, present, and future. To contrast hypothetical meaning, the first sentence in the table is a real conditional sentence.

If I have the money, I will go to Paris.

The speaker refers to the future and sees the condition and the result as real.

If I had the money, I would be in Paris.

The speaker refers to the present and does not in fact have enough money to be in Paris.

If I got the money, I would go to Paris.

The speaker refers to the future and thinks that it is highly unlikely or impossible that he will get enough money to be able to go to Paris.

If I had had the money, I would have gone to Paris.

The speaker refers to the past and describes a condition and event that is contrary to fact in the past.

Conditions that are contrary to fact in the past with hypothetical results in the present are commonly referred to in course books as ‘mixed conditionals’.

If I had spoken Spanish during the interview,

I would be working there now.

The speaker did not speak Spanish during the interview. She is not working at the company now.

Independent clauses

Apart from conditional sentences, hypothetical meaning can be expressed by using a variety of structures shown below. Here again, hypothetical meaning is expressed by backshifting the verb forms.


  1. We use wish + a past tense to express a desire that has not been fulfilled or might be fulfilled in the future. We all wish you were here.
  2. We use wish + past perfect to refer to things we regret. She wishes she hadn’t told me.

If only

  1. We use if only in the same sense as wish but with a stronger meaning. It is often used with an exclamation mark. If only I could just talk to her for a minute!
  2. We use if only + would/wouldn’t to criticize someone else’s behavior. If only they would stop swearing!

Would rather

  1. We use would rather + past simple to say what we want someone to do in the present or future. I’d rather you didn’t tell him about the accident.
  2. We use would rather + past perfect to say what we wanted to happen in the past. I’d rather you hadn’t spent all our money on that silly sauce pan.

In the next installment, I'll look at learner problems and offer some teaching suggestions.

I hope these ideas help you feel more confident teaching unreal conditionals.

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