Which one of the following is grammatically correct?

It would be better if you drink all the water.

It would be better if you drank all the water.

The question is, obviously, about the use of the past tense.

  • 1
    I think the first sentence is a "cut down" version of the pedantically correct "It would be better if you were to drink all the water". Most people don't bother with such use of the subjunctive these days anyway. Commented Jul 14, 2012 at 12:25
  • @FumbleFingers Your comment makes no sense. There is no “pedantically correct” here, nor is there any need for a marked “were to”. What is with the subjunctive-mania around here, anyway? Saying “if you were to drink” is exactly the same as saying “if you drank” here. There is no difference whatsoever. And “you were” is unmarked, anyway.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 14, 2012 at 23:51
  • Your comment makes no sense to me. OP's first example is not "correct", as I'm sure you agree. You also appear to agree by implication that if you were to drink is "valid". Apart from that, all I've said is that most people these days don't actually use that valid subjunctive form - but I never suggested it was "marked", or that there's any difference in meaning. Commented Jul 15, 2012 at 20:42
  • ...compare Google Books "It would be better if I were to say" (114 results), with "It would be better if I said" (2330 results). People prefer the simpler version. Commented Jul 15, 2012 at 20:45
  • The question which is said that this is a duplicate of, does NOT provide an answer. Where does How do the tens­es and as­pects in English cor­re­spond tem­po­ral­ly to one an­oth­er? even mention conditional moods?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 7:59

3 Answers 3


The second sentence is correct, but don't confuse its meaning.

It would be better if you drank all the water.

I would buy a sports car if I had a million dollars.

The structure is past tense, but the meaning isn't past at all. This means opposite to the real situation or, in other cases, imaginary.

Compare with:

It will be better if you drink all the water.

I will ask him if I see him.

Both sentences above mean real possibility.

Because of the differences in application, we don't usually mix up the clauses of the Conditional (If).

  • Cool Elf: If I had a million dollars, I'd buy you a green dress :^)
    – J.R.
    Commented Jul 14, 2012 at 9:57
  • WoW! I don't know why I didn't know about this song. It's perfect for teaching Conditionals. And from Barenaked Ladies! Thanks, J.R.! I'll be using this song if you don't mind :-D
    – Cool Elf
    Commented Jul 14, 2012 at 11:00
  • Actually, the past tense form is Counterfactual, not Hypothetical. Counterfactual means it's the opposite of fact, i.e, not true; Hypothetical simply means it's still uncertain, but may be true. Commented Jul 14, 2012 at 16:02
  • True, John. I just kept the OP's choice of word so as not to get him confused. On second thought, it's not such a good idea so I'll edit it now
    – Cool Elf
    Commented Jul 14, 2012 at 16:05

It is clear that the latter sentence "It would be better if you drank all the water" is referred to an imagined situation (if you drank all the water) and the possible result of this situation (It would be better.)

In other terms, your second sentence is a "conditional sentence."

In this light, you have to follow the rules governing the associated grammatical structures, which in this case are referred to the second conditional.

We use the second conditional to talk about the possible result of an imagined situation in the present or future.

The form of the second conditional is the following:

conditional clause → if + past simple

main clause → modal verb with future-in-the-past meaning (should/would/might/could)

That said, your second sentence is correct, while the first one does not follow the above rules.

However, if you rewrite the first sentence in this way "It will be better if you drink all the water", it works.

"It will be better if you drink all the water" is referred to future result (It will be better) of an imagined future situation (if you drink all the water), when we believe the imagined situation is quite likely.

So, replacing "would" with "will," your first sentence is still a conditional sentence which structure is named first conditional:

conditional clause → if + present simple

main clause → modal verb with future meaning (should/would/might/could/can/could/may/might)

Reference: English Grammar Today, Cambridge.

  • 1
    This whole “1st/2nd/etc conditional” thing is purely an ESL meme that is never taught to native English speakers in the course of their regular grammar-school education, and which furthermore makes very little sense when subjected to rigorous analysis. I think it just confuses people to no useful end.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 14, 2012 at 23:54
  • @tchrist. You may be right about the fact that teaching rules about conditional sentences is important in ESL and much less so to native speakers, but I'm under the impression that not everybody agrees with you on the idea that not being taught such rules is an advantage. See for example Barrie England's answer and comments to this question [1]: english.stackexchange.com/questions/74040/…
    – Paola
    Commented Jul 16, 2012 at 23:22
  • @Paola: I kind of agree with tchrist. if I had learned English from grammar, I think I would have trouble understand understanding OP's examples, or a construct like one in the question you mentioned. Not to mention speaking/writing them myself. Since I skipped grammar entirely, and jumped right to structure (of English) analysis, I have found that my proficiency is far exceeding my peers. (Not exactly something I really proud of, since it's kind of sad to me.) Commented Nov 14, 2012 at 8:38

In a sentence like that, the verb in the ‘if’ clause needs to be in the past tense: It would be better if you drank all the water. You use the present tense when the main clause consists of ‘will’ followed by ‘be’: It will be better if you drink all the water.

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