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Conditional sentences can seem very confusing. Grammar-books introduce a plethora of different terms and different languages express different types in similar but crucially different ways. But there are actually rather few types you will commonly meet, and even fewer that you will translate wrongly. Learn the forms for just four types soundly, and you will be able to translate most examples you find.

Latin students - you should clear up your understanding of Latin conditional sentences at the same time as considering the Greek ones.

The following table gives the English of the four most important types to understand:

Real Unreal
past If I had seen you, I would have said hello
present If I was at home now, I would be drinking a cup of tea
future If it rains tomorrow, I'll take an umbrella If I won the lottery I would buy a car

I have divided the table into real and unreal types. Different grammar books introduce different terms which correspond to the same distinction, for example ‘fulfilled’ vs. ‘unfulfilled’, ‘open’ vs. ‘remote’.

The terms you use aren’t terribly important - what’s more vital is that you understand the difference between these two types, which you will best do by considering their meaning.

The difference between the left and the right column is essentially a question of likelihood. The unreal conditionals either describe a situation which is contrary to fact, or which is unlikely to happen. So, I didn't see you, I am not at home now, and I'm unlikely to win the lottery. The real conditional, on the other hand, is perfectly likely to come true (as I write this in England). It is a real possibility that it will rain.


Importantly, we may see that the distinction in meaning is reflected in the form: the unreal conditionals are all marked by the word ‘would’ in the apodosis (the ‘then’ clause).

By understanding the difference between these two columns we may also see why I have left the past and present real cells of my table empty - they aren’t particularly common. Whereas past unreal conditionals are used to speculate about something which didn't happen, past real conditionals speculate about things which have happened. Sentences using this construction are not very plausible. For example:

If they met last week (which they did), then they became fast friends (which they did)

We do find sentences like these in ‘whodunnits’, often when a claim about the past is being thrown into doubt:

If he was with his wife last night (which he claims but which I very much doubt), then someone would have seen him.

Similarly present real conditionals will be speculating about situations which are actually true, and are therefore quite rare. For example:

If I am writing this on a computer (which I am), I am like most writers in the 21st century.

Again, these tend to be found in rather restricted type of texts - one example is philosophical texts where the definition of something is being tested. For example:

If tables have 4 legs (as we have just established), then this is not a table.

So, these two types of sentence are not particularly productive or common. In any case, they rarely cause any difficulties from a translating point of view because they are expressed in Greek by tenses of the indicative, in a very similar way to how they are expressed in English.


Here’s the Greek forms of the four most important types of conditional:

Real Unreal
past εἰ + aorist indicative, aorist indicative + ἄν
present εἰ + imperfect indicative, aorist indicative + ἄν
future ἐάν + subjunctive, future indicative εἰ + optative, optative + ἄν

A: If you go to the party on Saturday (I don’t know if you will), can you give me a lift?

vs.

B: If you’re going to the party on Saturday (as you’ve just said you are), can you give me a lift?

For more about conditionals, see uses of the moods (particularly the ‘general’ uses), and uses of ἄν.

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Further examples of constructions associated with this topic: