Unreal Past

Unreal Past

CAE unreal past wordcloud

An unreal past structure is one that considers impossible situations. While conditional forms are the most obvious, there are also a number of other ways we can talk about such scenarios.

We’ll take a look here at the variety of forms we can use and how we use them.

Conditional Forms

While conditional forms can also express an unlikely present we are concentrating on ideas that refer to the past here. 

The first of these is the 3rd conditional. While we have a typical structure, as follows below here, there are other ways to express the same idea.  

Let’s look at some examples

This is the standard if + past perfect form, modal + have + p.p. structure.  

  • If you hadn’t helped me with the report , I would have been here all night.

We can also use inversion,  a structure we can use  to show formality.

  • Had you not helped me with the report , I would have been here all night.

 Further forms that can be used as well as inversion are were + for or but for.

  • Had it not been for your help me with the report , I would have been here all night.
  • Were it not for your help/your helping me with the report , I would have been here all night.
  • But for your help with the report , would have been here all night.

Speculation & Criticism

Another way we discuss the unreal past is by offering opinions on how or why past events occurred.  Two ways we do that are by speculating about it or by criticising past actions. 

These types of forms mean that a speaker is offering a more personal view of the situation.


  • I shouldn’t have stayed up so late last night, I’m exhausted.
  • What were you doing running onto the road? You could have been killed.
  • You needn’t have washed the dishes. I would’ve put them in the dishwasher.
  • There was no need to be so rude. She just asked you a simple question. 

As you can see, these examples do refer to real past situations but as they are proposing alternatives and speculating we can view them in the same way as the more typical conditional forms.

Regrets & Possibilities

Regrets and talking about past possibilities are another way to reflect on the unreal past.

The most typical of these are the use of wish and if only.  


  • I wish you had talked to me first before buying that car.
  • If only we had got there sooner, the accident would never have happened. 
  • You should have talked to me first before buying that car.

These two forms generally have much the same meaning although if only has a slightly stronger meaning. We can also see how should have + p.p. is possible with the same general sense of regret. 

Wish and if only can also be different in meaning.

  • If only we had seen the car coming, we could have braked sooner. (regret)
  • I wish we’d known you were coming. (wish)


When we look at preferences we are  at two basic forms rather and prefer. Both, of course, refer to the present but we can also use them as a way of commenting on past preferences.   

The grammar for both is different but the meaning is a type of regret or criticism.



  • I would rather not have fired him but I had no choice given his consistently poor performance. 
  • I would rather you hadn’t told her we we were coming. I wanted it to be a surprise.

An alternative to would rather is would sooner and it is used with exactly same structure as would rather.


I would sooner not have fired him but I had no choice given his consistently poor performance. 



  • I would prefer not to have fired him but I had no choice given his consistently poor performance. 
  • I would prefer (if) you hadn’t told her we we were coming. I wanted it to be a surprise.

Other Unreal Past Structures

Finally, there are a number of expressions which talk about things that should be happening. 

These forms use a past form structure and typically use expressions with It’s time.

Example: It’s time we were going.

This example suggests it’s past the time to do something.  We can use about and high for further emphasis.

  • It’s high time you got a job.
  • It’s about time they fired him, he was a terrible manager.

About time can also be used to show irritation, anger or relief about a situation. The general meaning of the expression in this case is finally.

  • Hi Mum, I’m home.
  • About time! Where have you been? 

Unreal Time

Choose the alternative answer that can be used to rewrite the original sentence. There may be more than one possible answer.


I wish you hadn’t done that.

  1. I’d rather you hadn’t done that.
  2. I’d prefer if you didn’t do that.
  3. If only you hadn’t done that.
  4. Imagine you hadn’t done that.


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