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Here is the sentence that confuses me grammatically:

If nobody bought some milk yesterday, I will not be able to have breakfast tomorrow.

Now, I do understand the usage of the first conditional here, but the condition itself is pretty tricky: on the one hand, I'm talking about the past hence I need to use the 3rd conditional, but it is NOT unreal (quite possible, that nobody was able to pick up some milk), on the other hand I'm pretty used to the idea that the second conditional is used only when we talk about something unreal for current/future situations.

Does it mean that we need to use the 2nd conditional when we talk about the past possible conditions, or there is some other explanation to that?

  • This is not the second conditional; this is a mixed conditional. Mixed conditionals are used when the hypothesis (which in this case happened yesterday) and the main clause (which happens tomorrow) don't agree in time. For some reason, ESL classes often don't talk about mixed conditionals. – Peter Shor Mar 31 at 16:52
  • @PeterShor yup, thanks, but I don't understand why we use the second conditional to talk about the past ( I'm talking about the first part of my example here) – Mike L. Mar 31 at 16:54
  • It's not the second conditional, it's a past real conditional (which unfortunately has exactly the same form as the unreal second conditional). In this case, you can tell it's not the second conditional because of the yesterday – if it were unreal, we would say If nobody had bought milk yesterday ... – Peter Shor Mar 31 at 16:55
  • @PeterShor oh, I got it, thanks! – Mike L. Mar 31 at 16:59
  • It should be any milk instead of some milk, btw. Nobody negates the whole clause. – John Lawler Mar 31 at 17:15
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The three common combinations of verb forms in the clauses of conditional sentences, as taught to English language learners, are typically referred to as the first, second or third conditionals.

But it is essential to understand that there many more ways of expressing conditions in English than these three common patterns.

The Grammar Book: An ESL / EFL Teacher's Course (p548) has a tree diagram called A Semantic Hierarchy of Conditional Sentence Types which contains over 15 nodes representing the different ways to construct an if sentence.

The sentence If nobody bought some milk yesterday, I will not be able to have breakfast tomorrow would be classified as an explicit inference factual conditional.

According to the authors, this conditional type:

...is used as a basis for making an explicit inference: the result clause thus contains an inferential modal— typically must or should.

In the present case the explicit factual inference is that breakfast will not be possible, and the modal is will. The example given in the book follows the same clause pattern :

If he was there, he must have seen the painting.

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I'm not a grammarian. There are plenty here, and one will tell you how it shakes out.

Here's what I can say:

It's an if/then sentence. It's saying that if one thing did happen, then another thing will happen.

So the if isn't imaginary. It's one of two real possibilities. And if it did happen, the then isn't imaginary, either. It's certain. You won't have breakfast.

Poor you!

Now let's hear from the experts . . . .

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  • thank you for your answer, my question is mainly about the first part of this sentence - as far as I know (I might be wrong), when we talk about the past in terms of the conditional sentences, we use the 3rd conditional, but here we use the 2nd one and I don't really understand why :( – Mike L. Mar 31 at 16:53
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The first part of the sentence is expected to be the 3rd conditional because of ‘YESTERDAY’.

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    That's not at all true, and sounds like one of those zombie rules that insist that there are only 3 conditional constructions. See Peter Shor's comment under the Q. – Cascabel Mar 31 at 19:34

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