Lindsay McMahon
"The English Adventurer"

Have you heard people talk about what they would have done differently in a past situation in English?

This brings us to our third conditional, and it’s an important one to understand.

Let’s start off by looking at a roleplay to understand how this conditional works.

M: Hi Lindsay how’s it going? I was in your neighborhood this weekend!

L: Oh my goodness why didn’t you call me?

M: I thought you were out of town!

L; No I wasn’t. My plans were canceled.

M: Oh no! If I had known you were in town I definitely would have called you. I’m sorry!

L: That’s ok!

What did we just do? We spoke about something that could have been different under different circumstances.

Did I know you were in town? No.

Am I talking about the past? Yes. 

This is how it works and therefore we want to look at and understand how this third conditional works in conversation.

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One Thing Can Change Everything

Life can be so different even if one thing changes.

Today we are going to talk about this and the third conditional.

We are still working on our series on conditionals because a listener asked about how to use them–we felt each one deserves its own episode!

So here we are on the third one. 

Listen to this episode we did on the past perfect where we touched on the third conditional:

Do Natives Actually Use the Past Perfect?

We’re going to break this all down so that you understand it and can use it.

Looking Closely At This Conditional

This third conditional can be used often, so you want to understand how it works.

Let’s start with the structure:

If + Past Perfect + Would + have + past participle  — can be flipped

So the first example we used:

If I had known you were in town I definitely would have called you!

Again, I was in town, but I didn’t known Lindsay was there.

I would have called you describes the imaginary situation that took place in the past. 

So this is a great way to talk about imaginary, hypothetical situations in the past–and that’s a really important part of this to remember.

How Does This Work?

So you can get an idea of how this is used and the way in which this third conditional exists.

But when would you use it?

  • To talk about how life would be different if you chose a different path

It’s sort of reflective, and it’s something that you use to contemplate or consider what might have gone differently if you did something different.

This is really about the butterfly effect. Here are some examples:

-If I hadn’t contacted my friend about moving to NY, he wouldn’t have found me a temporary living situation. If he hadn’t found me that apartment, I would have moved home. If I had moved home I wouldn’t have met my husband. If I hadn’t met my husband, I wouldn’t have had my baby. Life works out!

  • To talk about how you feel a certain way about something you did and you want to express how you would have changed it

-I would have held the door for you if I had seen you. I’m sorry!

-If I had been hungry, I would have eaten dinner with you. Next time let’s plan to eat together!

-If you had given me a heads up, I wouldn’t have avoided talking about politics in front of your friend!

-If she had asked me for directions I would have offered to just drive her there!

These are all great examples of how you might see this conditional at work.

Reflection At Its Best

This is a really fun conditional because it can apply to your daily life because things change so much.

Remember- it is in the past and it is HYPOTHETICAL.

Those are the most important things to remember with this particular situation.

It’s as if you are saying you “would have” or you “could have” or you “should have”.

It’s totally reflective as you think back to what might have happened if you did this one thing differently.

It works quite differently than the other conditionals, and so it has those two very important distinctions.

Roleplay To Help

Here’s a roleplay to help you to understand how it works and see it in action.

Lindsay missed her flight and is telling me what happened.

L: So anyway, I thought I was going to end up having to pay 2000 bucks for a new flight!

M: Oh no! So you didn’t?

L: Well the guy at the counter heard me talking on the phone to my mother and crying about how I won’t go to my cousins wedding and he took pity on me. He let me change my flight for only 200 bucks!

M: That’s incredible!

L: yeah. If my mom hadn’t called me, he wouldn’t have heard me talking to her and I would’ve ended up paying an arm and a leg.

M: Wow. If I had known you were going to the airport Lindsay I would have offered to drive you so you didn’t have to carry all those heavy bags!

L: No no it’s fine. I wouldn’t have missed my flight if I had been more organized.


This conditional is a lot of fun and is extremely useful to talk about the past, and use to tell stories.

As always , think of how you might use this in your everyday life.

It can be for a simple mistake or a big life butterfly effect story. 

It’s all about reflection, and so it can be a really useful way of talking about what would have happened if you had gone down a different path.

If you have any questions, please leave them below in the comments section.

We’ll get back to you as soon as we can.

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