The linguistic norms of the English language require many types of conditional sentences because people live in both the real world and unreal fantasies. 

  • The zero and first conditionals are used when they talk about real events and their outcomes.
  • When they begin to fantasize and construct mental reality, the second, third, or mixed conditionals come into play.

When preparing for the IELTS test, try to understand all the subtleties of their differences. Highly qualified teachers at the Grade Education Center will help you see and easily remember the distinction between them.

Third Conditional: Dream of Another Past

Sometimes, we need to explain to others how a certain situation has developed in the past. Under different circumstances, it would probably have some other result. For this purpose, we use the third conditional sentence. It gives a projection of an unrealized cause and a probable past. This is an imaginable picture of what the past might have been like if an additional factor had come into play.

For example:

  • A woman is late for work and somehow needs to explain to the manager why this happened. She is convinced that the reason is not that she left home late, but that there was a traffic jam on the road. Therefore, she may say in her defense:

If I hadn’t been stuck in traffic for an hour, I would have been at work long ago.

  • The gardener needs to explain why the flowers planted near the fence did not bloom this summer. He is sure that the reason is not poor care but the shadow from the fence. So he might argue the following:

If you had made the fence at least a third lower, you would have admired the gorgeous flowers all summer.

How Third Conditional Sentences Are Constructed

Any conditional sentence consists of an if-clause (condition) and a main clause (result). In the case of the third conditional, both are unfulfilled in the past. Therefore, the construction of the sentence will take one of the following forms:

  • If + past perfect, perfect conditional: If the government had created new jobs last year, we would not have had such a high level of immigration.
  • If + past perfect, perfect continuous conditional: If the firefighters had arrived even a little later, we would not have been sitting on this balcony last summer.
  • Perfect conditional + if + past perfect: We would have moved on to trigonometric equations long ago if you had already mastered the previous topic.
  • Perfect continuous conditional + if + past perfect: We would have been basking in the sun on the beaches of Egypt if you had agreed to participate in that profitable project.

As you can see from these examples, it doesn’t matter which part of the conditional comes first. You can start with an unrealized result and then point to the reason that did not happen, or vice versa. The main thing to remember is that a sentence that begins with an if-clause needs a comma after it. When starting a sentence with a main clause, you don’t need a comma at all.

About Using Modal Verbs

As with 1st and 2nd conditionals, you don’t have to use only “would” in the main clause of the 3rd conditional. Instead, you can choose the desired form of a modal verb (can, may, must, should) to convey a more precise shade of meaning regarding the hypothetical result.

For example:

  • If I had learned Chinese, I could have gotten a job in Beijing.
  • I might have already been a father if I hadn’t studied for so long to become a doctor.


The past differs from the present and the future in that it can no longer be remade. Sometimes, other alternatives could have been realized in the past, but the condition for unfolding another scenario turned out to be impossible. The third conditional sentence is used exactly for such situations. If you think it’s too complicated and you’ll never use the third conditional, it’s not true. People often look to the past to analyze their mistakes. And probably, someday, you will want to say: If I had started learning English in the third grade, I would have already become a famous writer somewhere in America.