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"Jane wouldn't have found a job unless she had gone to London" is a natural-sounding sentence and has two different meanings, depending on whether Jane really did move to London or not:

(1) "Jane wouldn´t have found a job if she hadn't moved to London" (i.e. She found a job because she moved to London)

(2) "Jane would only have found a job by moving to London" (i.e. she didn't move to London so she remained jobless)

On the other hand, "The situation would have deteriorated unless I had arrived" is not natural-sounding and can only mean:

(3) "The situation would have deteriorated if I had not arrived"" (i.e. I arrived so the situation didn't deteriorate")

My questions are these:

Is "unless" only correct in third conditionals where the sentence remains true whether the condition occured or not - i.e. when it stresses logical realtionship between condition and result rather than telling us the actual result?

Conversely, should we use "if ... not" instead of "unless" where we want to make the outcome clear?

  • Remember: “Third conditional” is not a term taught to native speakers, only to ELL students. It’s not a very good one, either: English has at least a dozen “conditionals”. This makes “third conditional” a facile over-simplification. I suppose you mean when the protasis uses the past perfect construction. Or something like that. – tchrist Sep 7 '14 at 14:16
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    I don't understand why there's a special term for a construction that's ungrammatical. How many conditionals are there? Eight, like parts of speech? Seven, like gifts of the holy ghost? – John Lawler Sep 7 '14 at 15:01
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    No, it's precisely the wrong way to go about it. You should give examples of the phenomenon you're talking about instead of trying to describe it. People are generally not taught to think in terms of grammatical description, and if they are, they're not taught in any standard way. So people use whatever terminology they please, in the expectation that everyone will understand them. This is a false expectation. Nobody ever gets an answer until they provide Examples. – John Lawler Sep 7 '14 at 15:57
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    I still don't know what is meant by "third conditional", and I'm guessing that The situation would have deteriorated unless I had arrived is an example of it. But it's ungrammatical, and it's hard to see how it can be an example of a real construction. Calling it a "third conditional" does not help. – John Lawler Sep 7 '14 at 19:54
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    @Araucaria: I am grateful for the fact that I am neither responsible for nor cognizant of what "Language students are routinely taught" about English grammar. There's no first or second conditional in English, so why should there be a third? Tradition! (cue music). – John Lawler Sep 8 '14 at 2:33
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The sentence in 3rd conditional doesn't sound natural to my ear.To express the concept that moving to London was the condition sine-qua-non to get a job would be: Jane would have found a job if she had moved to London. (Unless is useless in your negative conditional) OR: Jane would have never found a job if she hadn't moved to London...

  • Thanks for your reply, Susanna. Both examples are in the 3rd conditional, not just the one about Jane moving to London. Also, other native English speakers tell me that the Jane example is natural-sounding (and we can find many similar examples by typing -"she wouldn't have * unless she had"- into Google). My question is why the second sentence sounds unnatural. Incidentally, the term 3rd conditional to which some people objected, is any sentence referring to an ‘unreal’ past in counterfactual conditions, including conditional clauses with if or unless. I could not find the tags for these. – Douglas Town Sep 8 '14 at 16:48

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