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1.

Introduction
I have always had a liking for grammar teaching and the traditional 2nd conditional is
a great opportunity to engage my students in fun activities and an important part of
the syllabus for intermediate level students. Although at an intermediate level learners
are already familiar with the 2nd conditional (if + simple past, would), they still have
trouble expressing untrue/unlikely conditions in the present/future. Understanding why
a simple past may refer to the present or future (see section 2.III) may be due to L1
interference or misusing the inverted forms of conditionals (see section 2.V) because
of lack of practice makes this grammar item hard for learners. Knowing how to deal
with the problems (see section 2) and questioning the effectiveness of just teaching
the traditional 2nd conditional basic structure (see section 2.I p.5) are reasons why I
chose this topic.
1.Language Analysis
Definition of conditionals and their general form.
According to Carter and McCarthy (2006, p. 448)
Conditions deal with imagined situations: some are possible, some are unlikely and
some are impossible. The speaker/writer imagines that something can or cannot
happen or have happened, and then compares that situation with possible
consequences or outcomes, or offers other logical conclusions about the situation.
Conditional clauses mainly express conditionality and they are most frequently
introduced with the word if (ibid)
If they competed, they would succeed OR They would succeed if they competed.
Protasis (if clause) Apodosis (main clause)
(The Shorter Oxford Dictionary cited in George,H.V. 1997 p.161)
Conditionals can also be in the interrogative or negative form.
1.1.Form/Meaning and Usage
Theoretical grammars
Traditionally conditional clauses are divided into the 1st, 2nd and 3rd conditional (Carter &
McCarthy 2006,p.748) The 2nd conditional is formed as follows: If+ simple past tense+
would/could/might (a modal with a past reference in its meaning). According to Carter
and McCarthy (2006,p.748), their meaning depends on the speaker/writer, a speaker
or writer responds to a possible/hypothetical situation by indicating a possible
outcome. The speaker states that the condition must be fulfilled for the present or
future to be different. In fact, it is imperative that the condition is fulfilled for the
present or future to differ (Carter & McCarthy 2006, p.748) e.g. If I knew what he
wanted, maybe I could help him. Apart from this description, Carter and McCarthy
(2006,p.749) mention that conditionals can refer to real or unreal situations. As they
put it, Unreal situations are things that are untrue or imagined, have not happened
and are only remotely likely to happen. Unreal situations are the basis of the second
and third conditionals (ibid) and there are no differences in the way they are formed
(If+ simple past tense+ would/could/might).
Murcia and Freeman mention that the description of the 1st,2nd and 3rd conditionals is an
overgeneralization (1999 p.545). For them it is more accurate to talk about factual,
future (predictive) and imaginative (subjunctive) conditional sentences. Imaginative
conditionals (hypothetical and counterfactual) are the focus of this paper.
Imaginative Conditionals
Hypothetical conditional sentneces

Form Meaning Example

The speaker perceives E.g. If Joe had time,


Present: if + simple something to be unlikely he would go to
past/present yet possible in the Mexico (present
subjunctive + ifclause.In this example: reference).If Joe
wouldFuture: If + we are not sure if Joe has were to have the
were to +verb/ verb time now to go to Mexico- time, he would go
+simple past tense it is possible but probably to Mexico (future
+ would unlikely. reference).

If+ should The negative quality of the E.g. If Joe should


have/simple past if clause can be further have/ happened to
+to have/should + weakened-the possibility have/should happen
of the result occurring
becomes weaker.Here: Joe
is probably not going to
infinitive +to have, have time and to have the time, he
would is unlikely to go to Mexico. would go to Mexico
Counterfactual conditional sentence

Form Meaning Example

E.g. If my
Impossible event or state in grandfather were
the if clause alive today, he
If+ simple past/ present/futurereference.Here: would experience a
present My grandfather isnt alive so very different world
subjunctive+ this is untrue/impossible in the (present
would. present / future counterfactual)
Functions of conditionals in Murcia and Freeman (1999, p.557)
Propose options for future scenarios.
To introduce contrasts.
To provide examples following generalisations.
To make inferences based on previously mentioned assumptions.
Jones and Waller (2010) suggest that this notion be expressed with other forms apart
from the traditional if + simple past, main clause would. After conducting research
they found some more structures which expressed something unreal in the non past
although, on the whole, the structures they propose are similar to what grammarians
have already mentioned. Clearly, context affects the form of this notion.
If+ past simple, simple present
E.g. Even if we did, we have no drivers abroad
Meaning: They want to change their present situation but they cannot because they
do not have drivers.
If+ present simple, would
E.g if two members of staff happen to fall in love, it would be churlish to be appointing
blame.
Meaning: happen to lexically expresses the unlikeliness of members of staff falling in
love.
Pedagogical grammars
According to Alexanders (1998) pedagogical grammar for intermediate level students,
there are cases where what is known as the 2nd conditional refers to something
untrue/imaginary or unlikely.
Form Use/Meaning
Apodosis (Main
Protasis (If clause) Clause)

Something
reasonably
possible but more
If + past/could (basic tentative. Past
formation)e.g If you went by tense does not
train, you would get there refer to past.Here,
earlier it is likely that the
train would take
you to your
destination faster)
Something totally
impossible ( this is
debatable though
E.g. If you could run faster, as the context is
youd be a champion. Would missing).
Table: adapted version from Alexander, G. L. (1998, p.208-9)
In Thornbury (2004, p.60) this structure is formed by if+ past tense+ clause
would/could.
E.g. If you were a parent, youd understand how I feel.
Meaning: Something unlikely or impossible in the present/future which has outcomes
that are hypothetical (ibid).
Inverted conditional
Inversion can occur in the 2nd conditional if the if clause has the verb to be. If can be
dropped in the conditionals and the auxiliary verb is placed before the subject (formal
inverted structure) for example, Were she my daughter, Id give her some good
advice (Swan, M. 2002 p.250). If cannot be dropped, if there is any other verb in the if
clause.
Clearly, different grammarians propose different descriptions of this notion. There is
consensus on the if clause simple past/past continuous or a modal verb (in the past)
while the main clause usually has would/could in it and its meaning has to do with
something likely/less possible or even impossible in the present/future. Variations of
this form use tenses like the simple present. The meaning is the same and depends
greatly on the context. These structures are used to express dreams, wants and
wishes, things that may or may not happen.
Spelling
The spelling of conditionals depend on the individual components which form the
2ndconditional. For instance, the spelling of the past/ irregular past or ing endings.
Phonology
Phonology is affected by the components which form the 2nd conditional, for example,
the [l] in modal verbs. Knowing which word to stress may also affect the meaning of a
conditional clause.
2. Problems for learners and how to solve them
1. Problem-The 2nd conditional: Is it enough?
Focusing on just the basic form of the 2nd conditional to present something untrue/unlikely in the
present/future is not enough. In fact, this can be expressed with other if structures too (see section 1.1
p.4).
Solution and techniques
Exposing learners to more examples of if clauses and patterns that are used to express these
conditions can be the first step towards teaching students the different ways of expressing real and
unreal situations (Jones & Waller 2010, p.29 and Thornbury 2003, p.223). Students could be asked to
identify sentences that do not fit into the traditional 2ndtype conditional (Thornbury 2003, p 96 & 223)
in authentic texts and then through discovery methods find the new patterns. We then discuss the
variations to the rules they have learnt so far and whether the sentences they found express the
target notion. They then record these variations and add them to what is in their grammar course
book and make something like a grammar journal. Building their own grammar journal will help them
realize that there are many ways to express something unreal/unlikely in the present/future. Such a
task solicits recognition of the form but does not guarantee correct production. It must be closely
monitored though as the learners may not be sure if what they found expresses this notion while the
teacher must also make clear that not everything goes and it is necessary to look closely at the
context and speaker/writer intention. This activity is more appropriate for adult learners. Identifying
variations would require more time if the learners were children but this does not mean that it is
impossible.
2. Problem-Id
Mistaking the contracted form Id for I had instead of I would (Aitken 2002, p110). This may happen in
my classes because I avoid using the contracted form on the board or due to overgeneralization. That
is why they may produce sentences like If I were rich, I had buy a Porsche.
Solution and Techniques
Students use the contracted form Id for I would through drilling the full and short form. Learners
rewrite sentences where would is used in the full form and then in the short form. Drilling can be quite
a dry, restricted method but it still makes the learners recognize the different Id forms. The limitation
of drilling exercises is that according to Savage et al (2010 p.6) they reduce cognitive engagement.
activities are designed to reduce students errors. Adults do not particularly appreciate drilling tasks
due to this. Drills can also be used for younger learner groups in the form of choral repetition or songs
e.g If I were a rich man/ if you had my love etc. were Id is used as part of the apodosis. Clarification
checks about the lyrics of the songs could ensure my learners noticed the contracted form.
3. Problem past tense referring to the present/ future
Students who have learned to associate the past tense with something that happened in the past find
it hard to believe that if+ simple past/past continuous may refer to the present (Celce-Murcia &
Larsen-Freeman 1999, p.545). They may have difficulty understanding how something which is
translated in their L1 in the past refers to the present or future or they may be overgeneralizing the
translation of the past.
Solution and Techniques
Engaging in what Willis (2005, p.14) calls consciousness raising activities is a good first step. By
looking at examples of simple past future referencing in context and figuring it out for themselves,
they will better understand the unreal past reference. A good task for intermediate students is to get
them into groups and give them slips of paper with phrases like win five million dollars in the lottery,
get a pilots license and be able to fly a plane and so on. The learners work in pairs and produce
sentences describing what they would do e.g. if I got a pilots license and could fly a plane, I would. I
would monitor my students during this task and offer feedback regarding any difficulties they have
with this form (Cowan, R. 2008, p.467). This is quite a restricted task and can be used before freer
production tasks where students could for example interview each other on things that would do if
they could.
4. Problem-Phonology (would)-stress patterns
Greek spelling is phonetic and has a correspondence between sound and graphic
symbol (Papaefthymiou-Lytra ( p.129 cited in Swan & Smith). Greek students tend to
have difficulty reading the short form Id /ad/ and not saying the silent [l] in would/
could /should. Russian learners have a problem with the sound [w] as it does not exist
in Russian (Monk and Burak cited in Swan & Smith 2002, p 147). This can be
problematic when teaching the 2nd conditional as would is the most common word in
the apodosis. Stressing the right word in a conditional clause may also affect the
meaning of the sentence and should be addressed in the classroom too.
Solution and Techniques
W sound/Silent L
In order to help my learners with the [w] sound I would show them where the sound is
formed (voiced velar) and then practice the sound with phonology cards with words
that start with W. This type of activity would be appropriate mostly for adult learners.
Although very restricted, it will lead to the outcome wanted. I would use phonological
cards to practice the silent [l] too. As a self-study task I would ask my learners to
record themselves on vocaroo and then check their performance. Practicing saying
the words over and over and listening to how these words are said will make perfect.
Stressing
Role playing would be a good way to familiarize learners with stress patterns as they
can provide a context and students will be able to emphasise the word which should
be stressed in the protasis and apodosis. Learners actually realize that stressing the
wrong word could affect the meaning of what they want to say. Stress patterns can be
part of a listening task too where learners underline which words are stressed. It is
necessary for students to have examples of the conditional as it is spoken in real life,
so video viewing is the best approach.
5. Problem-Inversion
Ellipsis of if and subject auxiliary inversion occur more frequently in written form and
more frequently in British English (Cowan 2008, p.458). Based on my experience, at
an intermediate level student do not really invert their conditionals and they
sometimes have difficulty recognizing the structure Were I as a conditional.
Solution and techniques
Structural drills will allow my learners to practice the structure over and over again.
Then they can move on to more meaningful drills which will enable them to familiarize
themselves with the inverted structure and feel more comfortable to use it in the
everyday speech. These drills could be done as part of a process writing task and in
order to make it more autonomous I would use some peer checking tasks of this form
in my class. Although drills are very restricted they help recognition of the form and
lead to usage of it in freer written tasks like a narrative or a consequence chain where
the learners would have to include the inverted form as part of the task fulfillment
requirements. Such a task would be appropriate for both adults/children.
3.Conclusion
Based on what I discussed in this paper, if I taught the second conditional tomorrow, I
would read through this LSA to get a clearer picture of this grammar phenomenon.
References
Aitken, R (2002). Teaching Tenses. Brighton: ELB Publishing.
Alexander, L. G. (1998) Longman English Grammar Practice for intermediate students. New
York:Longman.
Carter R. and McCarthy M.2006 Cambridge Grammar Of English: A comprehensive Guide Spoken and
Written English Grammar and Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cowan, R. 2008 The Teachers Grammar of English a course book and Reference guide. New York:
Cambridge University Press.
George, H. V. (1997) Essays in informational English Grammar with reference to English language
teaching. Victoria: Campus Graphics La Trobe University.
Jones, C. and Waller, D. (2011) If only it were true: The problem with the four conditionals ELT journal
Volume 65/1, p.24-32.
Murcia-Celce, M and Freeman-Larsen, D (1999) The Grammar Book: An EFL/ESL Teachers Course.
United States of America: Heinle and Heinle Publishers.
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Cambridge University Press.
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Willis, D. (2005) Rules, Patterns and Words Grammar and Lexis In English Language Teaching.
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