Unreal Mood


Notes on the Conditional Sentences video

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  • The hypothetical clause (protasis) is a dependent clause; the result clause (apodosis) is the main clause.

  • Either clause can come first.

    • When the result comes first, the linker (if, unless, when) before the condition separates the two clauses.

    • When the condition comes first, you need a comma to separate the clauses.

  • Unless = if not.  For example, "She'll walk away unless you stop her" is the same as "She'll walk away if you don't stop her".

  • Other alternatives to if with similar meanings:

    • supposing

    • provided (that)

    • given that

    • as long as

    • so long as

Alternately, you could use imagine, suppose or let's say to replace if when the condition clause is by itself (in these cases the result clause must come second, and you need a semi-colon to separate them, if not different sentences).

  • Some less popular and more formal alternatives to using ‘if’ in the condition clause are:

    • placing ‘had’ or ‘were’ before the subject (e.g. “Had you any sense, …”; “Were you on time, …”).

    • starting with ‘but for’, in which case the rest of the condition would be a noun phrase instead of a full clause (“But for Gerald’s quick thinking, …).

  • You can create similar cause-and-effect complex sentences (but not conditionals) with linkers like even though or although.

  • Would  is often contracted to 'd in spoken form.

  • Would  is rarely used in 1st Conditionals.  It is, in many cases, the past form of will, so it usually doesn't make sense to use would for future meaning.  But for unreal situations in the future, we could use other modals like shouldcould, or might.

  • In addition to affirmative sentences, you can use conditionals in negative, interrogative, and imperative sentences.  In these cases, the result clause is the one that changes

    • affirmative: "You should call your mother if she's sick."

    • negative: "You shouldn't call your mother if she's sick."

    • interrogative: "Should your call you mother if she's sick?"

    • imperative: "Call your mother if she's sick."

  • The word then sometimes before the result clause (but after the comma) when the result clause follows the condition clause.  This is more common in logic statements but less common in basic conversation.

  • Since the word ‘if’ already establishes a possibility, do not use any modals of possibility (may, might, must, can, or could) in the condition clause, as that would be redundant. For example, we wouldn’t say “If it may rain, …” or “If you must have been exhausted, …” The exception is when the possibility itself is the condition, and what follows would likely be a conclusion (and thus ‘if’ is used more like ‘since’ or ‘given that’).

  • 2nd conditional is usually for present or near future.  Unlikely events in the distant future could be expressed either with 1st or with 2nd conditional.

  • Here are some common usages for each type of conditional

    • Zero Conditional - rules, including rules of nature

    • 1st Conditional - expectations, plans, threats, promises, etc.

    • 2nd Conditional - warnings and close-calls

    • 3rd Conditional - regrets and missed opportunities

  • The most common form of mixed conditional sentences are condition clauses from 3rd conditional and result clauses from 2nd conditional.  But you can also do 3rd and 1st (respectively) or 2nd and 1st.

  • The second conditional sometimes uses "were" instead of "was" following singular subjects, as well as plural ones.  This is called the subjunctive mood and is considered formal or even archaic.

Notes on the Wishes & Regrets video

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  • ‘Wish’ is generally used for unreal mood when it has no indirect object. However, If there is an indirect object, it can be used to express hope for something that’s very possible (as in “I wish him the best of luck,” or “We wish you a merry Christmas.”).

  • In formal speech, we can use auxiliary-subject inversion instead of expressions like "I wish” or “If only” to express an unreal sentiment, although this is more common when applied to conditionals. Inversion means that the first auxiliary comes before the subject, which is then followed by the rest of the verb (if there is more in the verb string):

    • Had I only known you were visiting that weekend!”

    • Were you any faster, you surely would have won that race.”

  • These wish statements are typically used for the present or past, but they can be used for the future, but it’s usually the near future and is typically unlikely or impossible.

  • Wish is rarely used for the future, unless it’s the immediate future (bordering on the present - perhaps just a few seconds into the future), in which case we typically use ‘would’ (or ‘could’). Take for example: I wish it would stop raining, which you want to happen immediately after you finish that thought, as opposed to I wish it wasn’t raining, by which you mean it would be nice if the rain hadn’t even started, so it wouldn’t be raining at the moment you thought this. Alternatively, you can consider ‘would’ to be used when the verb denotes a change (I wish it would stop raining), but not when the verb denotes a state (I wish it wasn’t raining).

  • We can use both ‘wish’ and ‘hope’ for the future, and the sentence structures are essentially the same. But while wishes are unreal (for things that are unlikely or even impossible), hopes are real (for things that are likely, or at least reasonably possible). For this reason, we don’t backshift the verb for ‘hope’.

  • The only time the unreal mood is used for situations that are actually reasonably likely is when we wish to demonstrate frustration or annoyance. For this, we’d probably use ‘I’d rather’ or ‘it’s time’ to express a complaint, criticism, or rebuke.

  • The Wish Expressions are somewhat interchangeable, but not entirely; some work better with different uses.

    • fantasies: I wish / If only / I’d rather / I’d prefer if / Imagine if

    • regrets, disappointments, & missed opportunities: I wish / If only

    • complaints & criticism: I’d rather / I’d prefer it if / it’s time

    • relief: Imagine if

  • Exchanging one wish expression for another essentially results in the same meaning. However, there may be slight differences in tone.

  • For I’d rather and I’d prefer if, the subject of the unreal clause (i.e. the noun that follows the wish expression) should not be the same as the subject of the sentence (the noun at the beginning of the wish expression).

    • For example, you could say “I’d rather you didn’t say such things,” or “He’d rather I not say such things,” but not “I’d rather I not say such things.” Remember that these two wish expressions are used for criticism and complaints, so it wouldn’t make much sense for the person making the wish to target themselves.

    • an exception is if you are expressing an obligation, as in: “I’d prefer if I didn’t have to attend that meeting tonight.”

  • We say that for backshifting, the first word of a verb string is affected while the rest generally remains the same. One exception is if we have to add ‘have’, in which case the following word should turn into past participle form (eg. “could walk” becomes “could have walked”). See the Backshifting video or notes for more.

  • We don’t consider using the word ‘regret’ in this video. As the focus is on unreal situations, we talk about expressing regrets that things didn’t happen differently. But to regret what did happen, we use a verb pattern, since that situation is real (not unreal). Usually, we would have a gerund follow ‘regret’, as in “I regret leaving the concert so early.” However, you could also use ‘that’ after ‘regret’, which in turn is followed by a clause (eg. “I regret that I couldn’t join you for dinner last night). Again, for these situations, since you are expressing what did happen, they are not unreal, and thus there is no backshifting involved.

  • For past forms expressing present situations, we sometimes use "were" instead of "was" following singular subjects (as well as plural ones).  This is called the subjunctive mood and is considered formal.

  • For more unreal situations, you could express how someone seemed or acted contrary to what is true about them by using the phrases ‘as if’ or ‘as though’. These phrases are used as adverbial conjunctions, and the resulting complex sentence is not a wish or regret. (for example: “He orders people about as though he were king of the world.”) While this structure doesn’t fit in with the wishes and regrets we covered, it does involve an unreal situation, and so the verb is backshifted.



Notes on the Backshifting video

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  • Here's when we backshift:

    • to reference an action when its original context is now in the past (regardless of whether the action itself was/is in the past).

    • to express unlikelihood, impossibility, or uncertainty

      • in virtually every type of unreal situation.

      • as a polite request (as opposed to a forceful demand, which would use more confident words).

  • Since past simple gets backshifted to past perfect, did gets backshifted to had (and the main verb changes to the past participle form).  [see the backshifting printout]

  • Multi-word modals get backshifted according to the first word of the modal:

    • is able to was able to

    • have to > had to

    • are supposed to > were supposed to

    • [for more, see the backshifting printout]

  • There are only two reasons that you would change the main verb when backshifting:

    • There is no auxiliary verb, as with a positive sentence backshifted from present simple to past simple.

    • You add have, in which case you need to change the main verb to past participle.

  • Shall backshifts to should.  It's good to know, but since shall isn't terribly common anymore, we didn't include it in the video (although it is in our printout).

  • There are two ways to backshift must.

    • When must is used for deduction (present), it backshifts to must've (past).

    • When must is used for obligation (future), there is no direct backshift.  However, since it means the same as have to or need to, it can backshift to had to or needed to (past).

  • Backshifting past to past perfect is sometimes ignored in casual English; you can keep it past simple or past continuous so long as it doesn't cause confusion.

  • For negative verb phrases, not always comes after the first auxiliary verb.

    • couldn't > couldn't have

    • wasn't > hadn't been

    • etc.

  • When you have verb patterns, ([verb] to [verb] - or - [verb] [verb]ing), the first verb is typically what backshifts, while the second verb (the verbal) remains the same.

  • There are two main differences between unreal backshifting and reported backshifting (that we have found, anyway; let us know if you’ve identified another):

    • Future gets backshifted to present for most unreal situations but backshifted to future-in-the-past for reported speech.

    • ‘am’ and ‘is’ get backshifted to ‘was’ for reported speech, but get backshifted to ‘were’ for unreal situation (this is part of the subjuntive mood), especially in formal English.


Related Printouts

  • Conditionals table (letter) (A4)

  • Modals page (coming soon)

  • Backshifting chart (by tense: letter; A4) (by word: letter; A4)


Next in the Series

More on Conditionals

includes alternatives to 'if', subjunctive cases, inversion, different sentence types (+/-/?), and standalone condition clauses


We'll get into the different modals, how they're used, how they change, and the differences between them.

Past Intentions & Expectations

also known as “Future in the Past”

sentence structureErik Arndt