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If only I had done something differently...

If I had chosen a different university degree...

What would your life look like? Can you finish the sentence?


...I would have studied to become a veterinarian.

...I would have found a better job.

...I wouldn't have learned so many interesting things!


These are examples of the 3rd conditional tense. This is the tense we use to talk about impossible situations. Impossible because we are referring to actions that did or didn't happen in the past, and since we can't change the past, we are talking about hypothetical consequences of past actions. Confusing, right? Not really, don't worry! Keep reading and by the end of the post all your doubts will have faded away (I hope!).

 

The third conditional - often used to talk about regrets

Grammar structure

If + past perfect + would have + verb participle


If she had studied, she would have passed the test.

(She didn't study, so she didn't pass the test.)


I would have cooked dinner if I had had the time.

(But I didn't have time, so I didn't cook dinner.)

​Purpose


We use the third conditional to talk about hypothetical past situations that had some sort of consequence or effect (or positive or negative). It is called the impossible conditional because we can't change the past. We often use this tense to talk about our regrets or things we wish "would have/wouldn't have" happened. We can also use it to simply state how things might be different now if they had been different in the past, it doesn't necessarily have to be used to talk about regrets. Take a look at the following examples:


If I hadn't said that to him, he wouldn't have broken up with me.

(I regret saying that to him because it caused him to break up with me.)


If I had seen you, I would have said "hi".

(Not a regret, just a fact: I didn't see you, so I didn't say hi.)

Mixed conditionals


Sometimes native speakers mix the second and third conditionals in order to slightly change the context of a sentence. This causes a lot of confusion, so let me try to explain it with some clear examples.


If + past perfect (third conditional) + would (second conditional)


(Third conditional to talk about a hypothetical past + second conditional to talk about a hypothetical present.)


If I hadn't moved to Spain when I was younger, today I wouldn't be an English teacher.


If you had gone to bed earlier last night, you wouldn't be so tired right now.


If he had studied more during the year, he wouldn't need to study so much now.

I know, conditionals are always a bit confusing, but I hope this guide has helped you to see them just a bit more clearly. If you missed the first two posts in this mini series, check them out here: the first conditional and the second conditional. Feeling brave? Leave a comment with an example using mixed conditionals!


 

Glossary

  • to refer [to something]: to mention or call attention to something

  • to fade away: phrasal verb - to disappear

  • regrets: things you wish you had/hadn't done in the past. To regret something is also a verb.


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