Wednesday, August 17, 2011

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Thinking about Superman a.k.a. Imaginary Situations (Conditionals)

Superman (Picture from Wikipedia)
Let's think about imaginary situations; these are situations that are not real. These situations are very common when we speak in English. Lots of our conversations talk about things which might happen and we have other conversations about things that probably will not happen, but we like to imagine and dream about them.

Imagining Situations in the Present

For example, in the future I will eat, but this depends on me being hungry or not.  If I'm hungry, I eat. This is a common and normal situation. However, in English we also like to talk about situations which are not normal. Let’s think about Superman.

Superman isn’t real... sorry to disappoint you. :-) He is imaginary so a lot of conversations about Superman are imaginary.

I like to be Superman = Something I enjoy regularly.  Hmmm... I can't be Superman so this is not a good sentence.

I would like to be Superman = This talks about something I want.  I can't be Superman but I can want to be Superman.

This is NOT possible - I will never be Superman... :-(
... but if I had Superman's powers then I would be very busy saving people all the time.
Or... if I could fly like Superman then I would save a lot of money.
Or... if I wore Superman's costume, I'd be embarrassed most of the time!
Or... if I were* Superman, I'd probably need to shave.

Let’s look at a few more examples.

Here is a young man thinking about money.

If I won the lottery, I'd buy a mansion.
If I had lots of money, I would move house.**
If I were* very rich, I would get a big red house.
(Pictures from Flickr: Man, Money, Mansion)
Do you see the patterns here?  It is a little bit confusing but I will explain.

Start with 'If I', 'If you', 'If he', 'If she', 'If we', 'If they' and then the past form of the verb (have, had, had; can, could, been able to; wear, wore, worn; etc, etc.)

Continue with 'I would' or 'I'd', 'you would' or 'you'd', 'he would' or 'he'd', etc. and then the basic form of the verb (be, was/were, been; save, saved, saved; buy, bought, bought; get, got, gotten).

Look at the sentences again.  Do you see the pattern?  Do you understand the imaginary situation in each sentence?

If I had Superman's powers then I would be very busy saving people all the time.
If I could fly like Superman then I would save a lot of money.
If I wore Superman's costume, I'd be embarrassed most of the time!
If I were* Superman, I'd probably need to shave.
If I won the lottery, I'd buy a mansion.
If I had lots of money, I would move house.**
If I were* very rich, I would get a big red house.


* 'If I were' - Usually we say 'I am, I was, I have been' but when we talk about imaginary/unreal situations we use 'If I were'.  This is grammatically correct English but you will hear a lot of native speakers using 'If I was'.  This is your choice; lots of native speakers use the 2nd option but the 1st option is grammatically correct.

** 'to move house' - This phrase does not mean to physically move a house.  It is the phrasal verb we use to describe changing your accommodation.

Imagining Situations in the Past

Let's look at imagining situations in the past.  Usually these are regrets; bad situations in the past that we wish we could change.  Here is a picture of a young boy who obviously had an accident.

If I hadn't ridden my bicycle, I wouldn't have broken my arm.
If I had been more careful on my bicycle, I wouldn't have broken my arm.
If I hadn't fallen off my bike, I wouldn't have broken my arm.
If I hadn't worn a helmet, my injuries would have been worse!
(Pictures from Flickr: Bicycle, Boy with Broken Arm, Arm)

Again, this is an area of English that we use a lot.  We often try to imagine things in the past being different.  Can you see the pattern here?

Start with 'If I had/If I hadn't' or 'If you had/If you hadn't' or 'If we had/If we hadn't' and then the past participle (ride, rode, ridden; break, broke, broken; fall, fell, fallen; wear, wore, worn).

Continue with 'would/wouldn't have' and past participle again.

'If the boy in the picture had been Superman, he wouldn't have broken his arm.'

The 2nd and 3rd Conditionals

You probably recognize these as the 2nd and 3rd conditionals.  I don't like these names for this grammar.  I think it's better to think of this grammar as imaginary situations in the present and the past.  Or, if you want to think about it in a different way: 'unreal present' (2nd) and 'unreal past' (3rd) conditionals.

More Practice with the 'Unreal Present'

A World without Planes - This article/story imagines a world without planes and air travel.  It is a great composition to read if you want more confidence with your conditionals.

Change the World by Eric Clapton - This song has a lot of examples of conditionals.  However, some of the lyrics have some confusing mixed conditionals. Can you find them and fix them?

If you are really adventurous, you can try the karaoke version. :-)

More Practice with the 'Unreal Past'

On Time - This short film is 6 minutes long and you can practise your 'unreal past' by talking about this video with a friend.  Share it with another friend who is learning English and use the 'unread past'/3rd conditional to have a conversation about it.

Enjoy these very useful parts of English!  Please comment below and let me know how successful your studies are.

Remember, what you need for confidence and comfort is practice, practice, practice. ;-)


  1. Hi Gordon, what a nice and brilliant topic! Very useful, informative and easy to understand. You are right, we have to practice, practice and practice a lot, the more you practice the more you'll become fluent.
    Take care!

  2. Thanks for the comment, Marcelo. Of course the real skill in making the practice fun as often as possible. Not everything about language learning can be fun and games, but the more that is fun , the faster we will acquire the language.


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