Is the conditional a mood or a tense? I've heard it described in both ways.

It seems more like a mood as it is often lumped with hypothetical constructions and the subjunctive mood. I could see it too as being a kind of nuance of the future though, as the conditional often implies something that will happen when other conditions are met. For example, "If I were a bird, I would fly away."

People have made a tag that says conditional-mood, but it has only been used three times, so I'm not convinced.

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    Perhaps it would help if you marked the word, phrase, or verb that you call "conditional" in that sentence; I assumed that you were talking about the word "would" in your example sentence, because that is how the word "conditional" as a noun is usually used. Commented Apr 15, 2011 at 21:29

5 Answers 5


Traditionally, it is considered neither, though it is sometimes called a mood for lack of a better word. The word function would seem the best term. I am assuming that you are talking about the word would in your example. The adjective "conditional" just means "related to a condition"; when used as a noun, it usually refers to a function of the past subjunctive tense of modal verbs (would, could, might, and should).

There are three traditional moods in English, indicative, subjunctive, and imperative; there are several tenses, which are combinations of moods, aspects, and temporal properties (you might say past and present are aspects, though they are usually not so called).

There are three types of conditional sentences, as Henry has pointed out, which are mainly just sentences in which an explicit or implicit condition is present. There is a function of the past subjunctive that is called conditional because it is used with one of these types, the so-called hypothetical condition (if he were rich, he would be unhappy). I think that is the one you mean; while it is sometimes called a mood, I find this unclear and confusing: how can something be of two moods, both subjunctive and conditional? Function is the term that both fits best with established terminology and best describes what kind of phenomenon it is.

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    N.B. The restriction of mood covering just indicative/subjective/imperative is specifically "inflectional mood". It's also reasonably mainstream to extend "mood" to cover "analytical mood", i.e. the modal verbs. (For what it's worth, I don't think it makes sense to say that English has subjunctive and imperative forms when if you look at the actual data, they appear to be infinitives.) Commented Apr 16, 2011 at 1:37
  • Hell of a lot more than "three types of conditional sentences" in English. Commented Jun 17, 2017 at 15:48
  • @Clare: How do you mean? Commented Jun 17, 2017 at 19:01

There's no single "correct" universally agreed upon answer to this. Depending on your theoretical perspective and/or what you've had for breakfast, you could argue along various lines.

The argument in favour of calling it a "mood" is that "mood" is based on the definition of "mood" as something like "the use of verb forms to grammaticalise modality" (where "modality" is itself defined as the expression of a combination of notions including possibility and obligation that essentially mark something is "not a straightforward assertion of truth").

Another point of view is to say that the conditional has an inherent time reference (e.g. "future in the past"), and so constitutes a "tense" just as much as other verb forms with inherent time references. Provided you take the stance that there is some time reference, then the argument about the conditional "having modal uses" isn't so compelling, given that practically any verb form has some modal uses (e.g. "will" and, say, the future tense in Spanish are probably used more often with modal uses such as to indicate a hypothesis than they are actually used to mark futuriority).

I have to say I think the "mood vs tense" omelette is somewhat overegged. Unless you are actually exploring these kinds of theoretical framework, it's hard to see why it matters terribly much either way.

  • I am sensing that there is no term that makes you completely happy either. I agree that it doesn't matter a great deal in the end, as all this terminology is just some model that we put on language because it can be of use to us. As long as you have a consistent model, it doesn't matter so much which model you choose. Commented Apr 15, 2011 at 22:26
  • I'd even take a slightly different view (and I've said this before I think on another thread here). In principle, which model accounts for the observable data more adequately is a matter of scientific fact. We may not yet have come up with the argumentation to decide either way, but that's just a failure of our imagination; in principle, I think it could be decided as a matter of fact. Commented Apr 16, 2011 at 1:44
  • An important point is that Latin did not have a conditional as a verb conjugation. It was formed in modern languages from modal phrases.
    – ogerard
    Commented Apr 23, 2011 at 20:13
  • Mmmm not sure I quite get the relevance of Latin other than as 'another example of a language'. For what it's worth (but I think it's irrelevant to the analysis), in modern Romance languages, the 'future' and 'conditional' tenses are formed from what was at one time an infinitive + conjugated form of 'habere', which then fused with the infinitive. As far as I'm aware, this fusing was complete something in the order of 1000 years ago. Commented Apr 23, 2011 at 21:13

People who are using tense in an informal sense would call the conditional a tense. However, the informal sense of the word tense is, basically this:

I dunno, something to do with verbs? All of those verb things, passive and comparative and future and whatnot, they're all tenses. Now leave me alone.

If you have any pretension to using grammatical terminology accurately, then the conditional is a mood. Tenses specify the time of an event, while moods specify the modality. Referring to the "conditional tense" is an error.

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    I agree that "conditional tense" sound a bit amateurish. // Moods and modality are not equivalent: it is just that the word modality is derived from an important formal element that marks modality, mood, while modality itself is a broader concept and includes other things than mood, such as plain auxiliary verbs, and adverbs (I will probably go to school: both "will" and "probably" mark certain modal properties, neither of which is inherent in the moods of these words—"probably" doesn't even have a mood: only finite verbs have a mood). Commented Apr 15, 2011 at 21:16

It is described both ways. For those who say that English has three forms of the conditional, then it is a mood. Those who think there is only one use (using the modal verb would) and who have also learnt Romance languages are more likely to say it is a tense combining future and past nuances.

Sensible people will accept either conditional mood or conditional tense without fussing too much.

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    Divining a mood from hypothetical situations seems to me an exercise in creating categories for their own sake.
    – mfe
    Commented Apr 15, 2011 at 20:57
  • I am puzzled by your reference to Romance languages as going into the 'tense' direction. Traditional french grammar consider conditional as a mood with two (or three) tenses. But other grammarians (not the majority) consider conditional present as a tense.
    – ogerard
    Commented Apr 23, 2011 at 20:10
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    @ogerard -- I think it may be a reference to the fact that the conditional in Romance languages is derived from the infinitive plus imperfect tense of 'habere' ("avoir", "haber" etc). And, with variations, it can generally function as a future-in-the-past (as it can in English) in Romance languages [but e.g. this use is old-fashioned in Spanish and generally supplanted by the imperfect subjunctive in Italian-- in practice the coorespondence between conditional and future-in-past isn't so stable]. Commented Apr 23, 2011 at 21:22
  • @Neil Coffey. I've been reading through some of your answers and you seem very knowledgeable. Still I don't understand what you mean here: how can the imperfect subjunctive "io facessi" be used instead of "io avrei fatto" in Italian?
    – Paola
    Commented Apr 22, 2012 at 20:53
  • Paola -- how would you normally say in Italian "He said that he would do it"? (meaning "He said that he was going to do it".) My recollection was that Italian used the subjunctive form in this case? I'd love to be corrected though if I misremembered-- and maybe in that case there's another similar construction that does use the subjunctive?-- as I say, my memory was that the subjunctive was used in this case. Commented Apr 23, 2012 at 3:24

According to the RAE, the best source to resolve such questions, the conditional is categorized as one of the indicative forms. It would be best, perhaps, to note it as an indicative inflection. It is not a tense because it does not express time in any concrete way, although it does allude to a possible future 1) in the past as related to a subjunctive clause, and 2) in the present as a polite request.

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    I apologize for being so ill-informed, but what does "the RAE" stand for—"the Real Academia Española"?
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Sep 15, 2018 at 19:44

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