If I do… If I did

When can we use the past tense for the future? In a conditional sentence. Read on to find out more about the three main types of conditional in English and when to use them. Imagine you and a friend are planning a trip. The choice is between bus and train. These are the phrases you might use:

  1. Shall we go by bus or by train?
Slow but cheap
Fast, but expensive

If we go by bus it will be cheaper. If we go by train it will be faster. Both of these are possible, so the conditional is Real.
—Use Present simple with will.

  1. DECISION: We are going by train…
    …If we went by bus it would be cheaper.

Now we know we are not going by bus, the conditional is Unreal.
—Use past simple with would.

When we imagine something that will not happen, or we don’t expect it to happen, we use if +past, even though the meaning is not past:

What would you do if you won a lot of money? (We don’t really expect this to happen)

If there were an election tomorrow, who would you vote for? (There won’t be an election tomorrow)

I think I left my watch at your house. If you find it, will you call me? (Real situation)
If you found a wallet in the street, what would you do with it? (Unreal — or imaginary — situation)

We don’t usually use would in the if part of the sentence:
I’d be very scared if someone pointed a gun at me. (not: if someone would point a gun at me.)
If we went by bus it would be cheaper (not: If we would go by bus.)

But you can use if…would when you ask someone to do something (very formal):
I would be grateful if you would let me know your decision as soon as possible.

In the other part of the sentence, use would (‘d) or wouldn’t:
What would you do if you were bitten by a snake?
I’m not going to bed yet. I’m not tired. If I went to bed now, I wouldn’t sleep.
Would you mind if I used your phone?

Could and might are also possible:
If I won a lot of money I might buy a house. (It is possible that I would buy a house)
If it stopped raining we could go out. (We would be able to go out)

  1. The next day…

…if we had gone by bus it would have been cheaper.

Now we can no longer make the journey by bus, the conditional is hypothetical.
—use past perfect (plus-que-parfait) with would have.

When a situation is completely hypothetical (usually because the opportunity has passed, we use if+ past perfect + would have:

If I had worked harder, I would have passed my exams. (But I didn’t)


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