How to Use the Third Conditional in English

You might have noticed that we don’t talk about grammar a lot on this blog. While it’s definitely a part of language learning, we don’t think grammar lessons are always the most important thing. We like to focus on learning to communicate better with others in a real-life context—which often doesn’t involve perfect grammar.

But sometimes, knowing a thing or two about a particular grammar point can come in handy when you want to express yourself.

That’s why we’ve discussed the first and second conditional, and why we’re talking about the third conditional today!

What is the third conditional, you ask? 

Well, basically, it’s an English structure you use to talk about the past—specifically, to describe an imaginary past situation and the result of that imaginary situation.

Below, we’ll get into more detail about the third conditional and give you some examples.

When to use the third conditional 

To help you understand the third conditional, let’s start with an example. Imagine this:

You gave your friend some wine for her birthday, but you later found out that she doesn’t drink wine. You’re probably feeling a little bit of regret, wishing you had given her something else instead. 

You could say something like, “If I had known you didn’t like wine, I would have gotten you something else.”

You didn’t get her something else (because you didn’t know about her dislike of wine), but you’re imagining what you would have done if you had known. 

The third conditional doesn’t always have to involve you or another person, however. Here’s an example:

“If it had rained last night, my garden would have gotten watered.”

How to use the third conditional

It might sound a bit complicated, but once you have the structure down, you’ll be able to use the third conditional with no problem.

→ The third conditional is structured like this:

if + past perfect, would/could have + past participle

If she had brought her money, she could have bought a sandwich.

(In reality, she did not bring her money, so she couldn’t buy a sandwich.)

→ You can also switch the clauses around like this:

would/could have + past participle if + past perfect (Notice there’s no comma in this structure.)

We would have called you if we had known you were in town!

(You didn’t know they were in town; therefore, you didn’t call them.)

→ You can make one of the clauses negative:

He would be a millionaire if he hadn’t sold his shares in Apple.

(He did sell his shares, so he’s not a millionaire.)

→ You can also make both clauses negative: 

If they hadn’t stayed up so late, they wouldn’t have been tired the next day.

(They did stay up late, so they were tired the next day.)

Talk about the past with the third conditional 

The third conditional doesn’t have to be complicated! Next time you’re thinking about how a situation could have had different results, you should try expressing it in the third conditional, using the points we discussed above. After all, if you hadn’t been interested in learning about the third conditional, you wouldn’t have read this blog post (see what we did there?).

Andrea is a Gabby Academy coach and education technolgy writer based in Vancouver, Canada.