“If I were you, I would accept this job”, “If the weather was good, we would go for a walk”, “If she had come home earlier, she would have cooked a delicious dinner”. We commonly use these types of sentences in everyday life to express possible or unrealizable action. Let’s see how these sentences work in Russian.
Real and Unreal Conditions
There are 2 types of conditions in Russian: real and unreal. Both require the use of the word “если”. As the name suggests, real conditions expresses real, true to fact condition under which the action in the main clause can be realized.
- Если Cаша хочет учиться в университете, он должен сдать экзамены (If Sasha wants to study at the university, he should take exams).
- Если у меня будет время, я приду на встречу (If I have time, I’ll attend the meeting).
- Она поговорит с ним, если увидит его (She will speak to him if she sees him).
As far as I can tell and in my experience, learners usually don’t have problems when using real conditions; but when it comes to the unreal condition, they may encounter some difficulties. That’s why today we are going to focus on the use of unreal condition in Russian language.
What is an Unreal Conditional Sentence?
Unreal conditional sentences are used to express either a hypothetical or contrary to fact action that didn’t take place in reality but might have been possible under a certain condition.
- Если бы у меня был мандарин, я бы обязательно с тобой поделился (If I had a mandarin, I would definitely share it with you).
- A hypothetical action that may refer to the present, or to the future.
- Если бы вы он вернулся раньше, мы бы пошли в кино (If he had come back earlier, we would have gone to the cinema).
- Unrealizable action that refers to the past: he came back late hence we were not able to go to the cinema.
The Structure of Unreal Conditional Sentence
As you can see, first comes the word “Если” followed by the particle “бы”, and it is used twice – once in each clause.
Word order is quite flexible in Russian, but you need to remember this: “бы” always follows “Если”. And in the second part of the sentence, “бы” never comes first! Its most common place is either before or right after the verb.
The verb in each clause is always used in the past form (л-form), no matter what tense you are talking about.
Let’s have a look at this picture for a better memorization!
We commonly use the word то (so) in the second part of “if-phrases”, but this is not mandatory:
- Если бы у меня был мандарин, то я бы обязательно с тобой поделился (If I had a mandarin, (so) I would definitely share it with you).
Which Particle To Choose «бы» Or «б»?
There is no difference in meaning between “бы” and “б”.
“б” is used in more informal, casual conversation, and may also be found in songs and poetry, in order to keep the rhythm of the phrase.
Examples from the song Если б не было тебя by “Несчастный случай” band:
- Если б не было тебя (If you didn’t exist).
- Я б выдумал себе любовь… (I would invent love...).
Now let’s have a closer look at the similarities and differences between unreal conditionals used in English and in Russian.
The Unreal Condition in English And Russian
In English, we can distinguish two types of conditional sentences which have different grammar forms.
One refers to the present or to the future, and expresses a hypothetical action:
- English: If I had a mandarin, I would share it with you.
- Russian: Если бы у меня был мандарин, я бы с тобой поделился.
Whereas the second one refers to the past and expresses an unrealizable, contrary to fact action:
- English: If I had a mandarin, I would have shared it with you (but you didn’t have any, so definitely couldn’t have shared it ).
- Russian: Если бы у меня (тогда/вчера/раньше) был мандарин, я бы обязательно с тобой поделился.
So, the good news is that in Russian you should use the same past tense (л-form) for both hypothetical or unrealizable actions!
You may say that it might be confusing to understand as to which refers to present, future, or past; but actually it’s not, because the context is always there to help you to resolve this ambiguity.
Read these dialogues and say if it’s a hypothetical or unrealizable action.
- Вчера утром ты сказал, что мы пойдём в кино после работы. (Yesterday in the morning, you told me we would go to the cinema after work).
- Любимая, ты же знаешь, что у меня сейчас дедлайн. Если бы я вернулся домой раньше, я бы обязательно пошёл с тобой в кино. Но вчера это было невозможно. (Sweety, you know, I have a deadline. If I came back home earlier, I would have gone to the cinema with you. But yesterday it wasn’t possible).
(answer: 1 – unrealizable; 2 – unrealizable)
Now let’s have some fun!
Check this video clip on my channel and try to spot the unreal condition.
Ok, I’m sure you heard one boy saying, “Если бы у меня был мандарин, я бы обязательно с тобой поделился” (“If I had a mandarin, I would definitely share it with you”), which is a hypothetical action.
And the other one was replying with regret, “Да-а, жалко, что у тебя нет мандарина” (“Yeah, that’s a pity you don’t have any”).
You’re doing great!
And the last clip from another Soviet comedy film Иван Васильевич меняет профессию (Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the future) that Russians know nearly by heart!
You heard the man saying:
Если бы вы были моей женой, я бы повесился (If you were my wife, I would hang myself).
Think what that lady could answer.
Если бы я была вашей женой, ___________________________________
Leave your answers below in comments!
Ta-daam! Unreal condition mastered!
I hope, you enjoyed it! You can find more educational videos on my Youtube channel Russian Bee dedicated to different aspects of Russian language learning.
In-text pictures created by Olga Rettel.