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Advanced Level: Past Conditionals real and unreal

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The Past Real Conditional describes what you used to do in particular real-life situations. It suggests that your habits have changed and you do not usually do these things today.

If I went out with my friends, I usually spent the whole night out. I can’t do that anymore.
When I had time off, I always travelled. Now I’m too busy.
When he was younger, he walked everywhere. Now he uses his car.
I had more time for my hobbies when I was younger.

Used to with the Past Real Conditional

To express the idea of a habit that happened in the past but stopped the form 'used to' is used. The following examples have the same meaning as the examples above:
If I went out with my friends, I used to spend the whole night out. I can't do that anymore.
When I had time off, I used to travel. Now I'm too busy.
When he was younger, he used to walk everywhere. Now he uses his car.
I used to have more time for my hobbies when I was younger.

If/When

Both 'if' and 'when' are used with the Past Real Conditional. 'If' suggests that something happened less often. 'When' suggests something happened more frequently.
If I had time off, I travelled. – I rarely had time off.
When I had time off, I travelled – I regularly had time off.

Past Unreal Conditional

The Past Unreal Conditional is used to talk about imaginary situations in the past. It is used to imagine different outcomes due to different decisions or actions in different circumstances:
If I had gone out less, I would probably have studied more.
I would have travelled more if I had had more time.
If I had studied French at school, I would have got the job.
Danny would have got the promotion if he hadn't insulted the boss's wife.

With the Past Unreal Conditional only 'if' can be used when the situations discussed are imaginary. 'When' cannot be used.

Conditionals and modals

There are some special conditional forms for modal verbs in English:
would have + can = could have
would have + shall = should have
would have + may = might have
The words "can," "shall" and "may" cannot be used with "would have." Instead, they must be used in these special forms:
If I had gone to England I could have studied interior design.
If he had time, he might have come to meet us.
When Sarah asked me to come to the party, I should have gone.

Lesson by Tristan, teacher at EC Malta English school

Now complete the following using the correct form:

  • 1. Peter _ to Paris with us if he’d had time.



  • 2. If Sarah _ that her colleagues were going to be so difficult, she would never have taken the job.



  • 3. When we were children, we _ the weekends at my grandmother’s.



  • 4. I used to hate it when our teachers _ sarcastic to us in class.



  • 5. If I _ the chance, I would have gone to live in Tuscany.



  • 6. When Peter moved to another city, I _ with him.



  • 7. Anne _ you if you had asked her.



  • 8. If I _ a higher salary, I probably would have stayed with the company.