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Third conditional - Rules and exercises for intermediate level

Written by
Friday, 08 January 2016
Example of third conditional: If I had asked her out, I would have gone on a date with her. This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license

An overview of the third conditional tense explains what rules you need to follow when using this tense, with examples and exercises to help you learn. This online lesson in English grammar is designed for intermediate level students.

Use of the third conditonal

We use the third conditional to talk about imaginary or 'unreal' past events - situations that never happened and the imaginary results.

Form of the third conditional

if past perfect (condition)    would have     past participle(result)    

The condition is the event or situation.

The result is what happens because of this condition.

Example: If I had asked her out (the condition), I would have gone on a date with her (the result).

Third conditional: positive and negative




he / she / it



had taken the money

hadn't taken the money




he / she / it




would have

wouldn't have

bought a house




Third conditional: question





he / she / it



had won the lottery






he / she / it



have done?




Third conditional, be careful!

1. The clause with the modal verb (would, could, might) is always the result.

2. In the question form, we have a verb-subject inversion.

3. We can shorten I + would to 'I'd'. Likewise he + would becomes 'he'd', she + would becomes 'she'd', and they + would becomes 'they'd.'

Linking to the present

In the above examples, we are linking two past events (the condition and the result are both in the past). However, we can use modal verb + infinitive to make the result imaginary in the present.

Example: If I had asked her out, we would be friends now. (If, in the past, I asked her out, right now in the present, I imagine that we would be friends)

Uses of diifferent modal verbs with the third conditional

We use different modal verbs in the second conditional to change the meaning of the result.

'If I had gone to American when I was younger, I would have played American Football' (expressing intention)

'If I had gone to American when I was younger, I could have played American Football' (expressing ability)

'If I had gone to American when I was younger, I might have played American Football' (expressing possibility)

Uses of the third conditional

We use the third conditional to talk about imaginary events in the past, and to guess what the results could have been in the past:

'If I had punched him, I would have lost my job.' (Did I punch him in real life? NO)

'If she had closed the door, she could have stopped all the bugs getting in.' (Did she leave the door open? YES)

'If you hadn't run for the train, you wouldn't have arrived on time.' (Did he arrive on time? YES)

We also use the third conditional to talk about imaginary events in the past but guessing the result in the present:

'If I hadn't studied hard as a student, I wouldn't be here now.' (Notice 'now' - we're talking about the result in the present)

'If he had passed his exams, he would be a dentist.' (Is he a dentist now? NO)

'If it had rained, the garden would be ruined now.' (Is the garden ruined? NO)

Third conditional, be careful again!

The third conditional is used like the second conditional to talk about unlikely events, but the third conditional talks about past events, not present or future ones, and so are always impossible.


Second - If I drove to the Antarctic, I would need a lot of gas (unlikely in the present)

Third - If I had driven all the way to Mexico, I would have needed a new car (imaginary situation in the past – impossible)

We use the third conditional to express regrets about the past... things we wish we 'had' done, but didn't.


If I had worked a bit harder, I could have had a much better job

If he had eaten less as a child, he wouldn't have gotten so fat

If it hadn't rained, we could have gone for a walk

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Last modified on Sunday, 05 February 2017 22:54

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