The Third Conditional

The third conditional is an interesting conditional because it is used to talk about a condition in the past that has no chance of happening; you can’t change the past, so what we are doing is instead talking about imaginary situations in the past.

It is often used in terms of imagining what would have happened if things had been different. For example, I met my wife in a foreign country, which had a lot to do with chance. I can talk about how other conditions in the past would have affected us meeting each other:

  • If I had gone to a different language school, we wouldn’t have met.
  • If my wife had chosen to go to France instead of Ecuador, we wouldn’t have met.

As you can see, the ‘If’ clause is formed by using the past perfect, and the main clause is formed by would + have + past participle.

The order of the clauses in the third conditional can be reversed. Let’s take a look at some examples:

Third Conditional Form

Like all conditionals, both clauses can be at the start.

Conditional Clause Main Clause
If I had studied harder, I would have passed the test.
If they had come, they would have had a good time.

or

Main Clause Conditional Clause
I would have passed the test if I had studied harder.
They would have had a good time if they had come.

More Examples

In all of the following examples, you will notice that we are talking about imaginary situations in the past: 

  • If we had moved to Spain, we would have really enjoyed it.
  • I would have missed the game if I had gone to the wedding.
  • I would have bought those shoes if I had the money – NOTE: ‘If I had had’ usually gets shortened to ‘If I had.’

We can also use ‘could’ or ‘might’ instead of ‘would.’

  • I might not have passed if I hadn’t studied so hard.
  • I could have chosen a different option if I had known that I had the choice.

The past perfect continuous can be used instead of the past perfect.

  • If you hadn’t been talking, you wouldn’t have missed what the teacher said.
  • You might have noticed what I was doing if you hadn’t been looking at those other girls!

Dialogue

Let’s look at the third conditional in context by reading the following conversation.

Paula: Where did you meet you boyfriend?

Meghan: I met him in London when I was there on a conference.

Paula: Wow, that’s really interesting!

Meghan: Yeah, I only went because my colleague couldn’t go. If she had been well, I would have never met my boyfriend. Are you going to take the Marketing test soon?

Paula: I took it last year and failed, I could have passed if I had studied harder. I would have taken it again last year if I had the time.

Meghan: If I had known that you could retake it, I would have taken it a long time ago!

-> Ready for an exercise?