A friend and I are having a debate about a most perplexing piece of English grammar. Now, I am a native English speaker, and he is Polish - this means that he is rather clued up on the grammatical side of things, whereas I know diddly squat, but know what feels right.

We were discussing Poland's next world cup match tomorrow, when Poland plays against Colombia, and I wrote to him after he me sent a heartwarming video (jokingly, of course), that 'I think threats of stoning if they don't succeed would be more effective.'

He replied that such a sentance should be in the second conditional tense, and thus go like 'I think threats of stoning if they didn't succeed would be more effective.'

So after a lively debate as to whether this is the second, first, or not even a conditional, I have no choice but to turn to the denizens of the interweb, to ask them to apply their grammatical expertise to resolve this vital question.

3 Answers 3


First, Second, Third, or Nth Conditional are terms that have been made up by certain teachers of English as a Foreign Language, most of whom are not native speakers of English. They are used only by some teachers (and, of course, their students, who have no alternative but to believe their teachers). They are not terms used by English grammarians, and they are completely unknown to native speakers educated in Anglophone schools.

Since, as you say, Anglophone schools teach native speakers diddly squat about English grammar, settling on proper terminology is not simple. Everybody wants to use the terms they're familiar with, even if they're not sure what they mean, nor how to distinguish the First from the Nth Conditional.

There are only two tenses in English: present and past. There is, in particular, no Conditional tense, of any number. There are, however, many, many (hundreds, even thousands) of syntactic constructions in English. To express opinions about causation and probability, English uses a number of such constructions, but there are far more than 4 (or whatever the canonical number of "conditional tenses" is sposta be; I've never seen a coherent description or count, personally).

As for the sentence you're asking about,

  • I think threats of stoning if they don't succeed would be more effective.

it's perfectly fine, because there's no requirement for the if clause to be in the past tense,
though that's OK, too.

  • I think threats of stoning if they didn't succeed would be more effective.

Generally the tense shift in if...then expressions is optional, not obligatory,
especially if you're dealing with a potential condition instead of a counterfactual one.


This centres around the position in time of the action.

If you are focusing on 'threats' this is referring to the team's success in the future, in which case 'don't' is most appropriate.

I think threats if they don't succeed would be more effective.

If you are focusing on the act of 'stoning', this will be referring to the team's success in the past, in which case 'didn't' is most appropriate.

I think stoning if they didn't succeed would be more effective.

(Call it a 1-1 draw...)

  • Thanks for the answer. As a follow up question, how far does this matter relate to difference in conditionals, i.e. first, second? Commented Jun 23, 2018 at 15:32

This isn't a straightforward conditional structure, which is why it appears to be a "mixed" conditional. It isn't, and so the 1st or 2nd conditional grammar "rules" don't apply.

If we trim the sentence down to just what appear to be the two conditional clauses, it makes no sense: "If they don't succeed would be more effective." What? It's nonsense. In a conditional structure, the two clauses should directly relate to each other with a cause-and-effect relationship, but here they don't. And where's the subject of the verb "would" gone?

So what actually is it? I'm scratching my head on this one, but here's my guess:

I think threats (of stoning if they don't succeed) would be more effective.

The section in brackets that contains the "if" is a prepositional phrase adding additional information to the noun "threats". The prepositional phrase (of stoning...) has had an extra clause tacked onto it with "if" to add a condition to the threats. As for using 1st conditional type language rather than 2nd, "if they don't succeed" makes more sense than "if they didn't succeed", because there's a real possibility they'll play and lose matches. No need for hypothetical language.

And how about the would? The verb "would" is not the main clause to match that "if" clause. "Would be" is the verb to go with the noun "threats". "Threats of stoning would be more effective". This is in hypothetical language so uses "would" because the speakers are joking and don't expect it to really happen (we hope!).

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