Published 3rd November 2015

The third conditional in English is used to talk about situations in the past which didn’t happen. It describes a condition in the past and the possible result; however, because this is in the past it cannot be changed; basically, it didn’t happen. In other words, the third conditional talks about impossible situations in the past. We use it mostly to make deductions or express regrets about the past.

As with the other conditional structures, there are many different activities that you can use to practise the third conditional in the EFL classroom.

  • Historical situations. Think of a few historic moments in world history and let the students discuss what could have or might have happened if things had been different. For example, If JFK hadn’t been in Texas on November 22, 1963….. or If Kim Kardashian hadn’t met Kanye West… Just remember to choose a number of situations which you think your students will be familiar with or even get them to come up with the situation. For a more advanced class you could turn it into a chain of consequences game (if possible) by linking the different events.
  • Personal histories. The above activity can be adapted to relate to the students’ personal histories; as we know, EFL students love talking about themselves and it helps make the language structure more memorable. For example, If I hadn’t come to EnglandIf I had learned English at school… Again, this can be used as a chain game.
  • Regretful situations. Use a story – factual or fictional – which has a negative outcome. The students can then discuss alternative actions which would have resulted in different consequences. For example, If John hadn’t stayed out all night…

The one thing to be mindful of when you are doing these activities – or any related to the third conditional – is that these situations can lead to the production of mixed conditionals. Many past actions can have present consequences, which would be expressed with a mixed conditional. For example, If I hadn’t decided to learn English, I wouldn’t be here now. This is not a problem, as such, because it is a perfectly legitimate sentence, but you may need to spend some time clarifying the difference between third conditionals and mixed conditionals. Of course, if your students are familiar with all four conditionals, then the introduction of the mixed conditional should not really cause any confusion. Ultimately it shouldn’t matter which conditional they are producing, as long as they are producing language which is appropriate and accurate.

Also bear in mind that conditional structures can be overwhelming and confusing for EFL learners. They can be tricky to get your head around and get straight in terms of usage, so when teaching conditionals make sure you are clear in the situations that you use.