When you learn Russian, you need to get your head round verbs, and the Russian conditional tense is no exception.
Instead of finite events, the conditional expresses something occurring … well, under certain conditions. In English, we create the conditional with the word “would”.
- I would have gone…
- If I had seen you, I would have…
The main idea here is that the conditional mood (условное наклонение in Russian) expresses something that “would be” if certain conditions were met.
To make this tense understandable and easy to use, in this post you'll learn:
- What the Russian conditional tense is
- How to form the conditional in Russian
- How the conditional works with чтобы
- Where and when the Russian conditional tense is most often used
The Russian Conditional “Tense”
Unlike the past, present, and Russian future tense, the conditional isn’t actually a tense. It’s what’s called a grammatical mood that often expresses a possible or hypothetical scenario.
As I said, the Russian conditional happens when specific conditions are met. Oftentimes these include the word “if” (если in Russian) and very often they are translated with the word “would”.
- Если бы вы пришли на работу, вы бы знали. (If you had come to work, you would have known.)
The knowing didn't happen, but would have (hypothetically).
You might also hear people refer to the subjunctive mood in Russian. The details aren’t important, but for all intents and purposes, you can consider the Russian conditional tense and the Russian subjunctive to be the same thing.
Forming The Russian Conditional
The good news about the Russian conditional tense is that it’s incredibly easy to form.
To make the conditional mood in Russian, you just need to start with the Russian past tense form of a verb.
This actually mirrors how it’s formed in English which uses the same helping verbs and past participles.
- If you had come to work, you would have known.
In Russian, this means that you need to keep in mind the grammatical gender and number of the actor. As with all Russian past tense verbs, any verbs with plural actors take the same ending (и).
|Я пошел||I went (m)||мы пошли||We went|
|Ты пошла||You went (f)||Вы пошли||You went|
Once you have the past tense, you only need to add in the particle бы.
|Я пошел бы||I would go (m)|
I would have gone (m)
|мы пошли бы||We would go |
We would have gone
|Tы пошла бы||You would go (f)|
You would have gone (f)
|Вы пошли бы||You would go|
You would have gone
- Это было бы смешно (That would be funny.)
- Вы могли бы приехать тогда? (Could you come then?)
Usually, the particle бы will come after the verb. However there is some flexibility with this.
- Я бы говорил (I would have spoken, I would speak)
- Я говорил бы (I would have spoken, I would speak)
You might also see the particle бы shortened to simply б from time to time. This tends to only happen after vowels though.
- Это было б смешно (That would be funny/that would have been funny)
- мы пошли б (We would go/we would have gone)
Using The Russian Conditional Tense
Now that you understand how to form the Russian conditional, let’s go over when it gets used. Generally speaking, it’s used less than English “would”, but there are some specific situations where you can expect to see it.
The Conditional With “If”
You’ll often see the Russian conditional with the conjunction если (if). This generally expresses a hypothetical situation where circumstances would be different.
- Если бы я знал….. (If I knew / If I had known)
- Если бы я знал, я сказал бы что-то об этом (If I knew, I would have said something about it)
- Если бы я знал, я бы пришел (If I knew/had known I would have come)
- Если бы только у меня было время (If only I had/ had had more time.)
- Я бы пошел туда, если бы у меня была возможность (I would have come there if I had/ had had the opportunity)
It’s important to note that the presence of если doesn’t automatically trigger the conditional mood, the same way it doesn’t in English.
Russian speakers regularly use если to describe direct certain “if…then…” statements without бы as we do in English.
In these lines from the famous Russian film Ирония судьбы (The Irony of Fate), the word если is used with the present tense, so the conditional does not appear.
|Если у вас нету дома,||If you don’t have a house|
|Пожары ему не страшны,||(then) fires won’t harass it (burn it down)|
|Если у вас нету тёти,||If you don’t have an aunt|
|То вам её не потерять,||then you won’t lose her|
Of course, you could express these ideas with the conditional but with the present, they are certainties.
Expressing Desire With The Conditional
The Russian conditional is very often used to express a want, wish, or desire to do something.
As such you’ll often find бы paired up with the verb хотеть (to want). This construction gives us something akin to “I would like to”, “you would like to” etc.
- Я хотела бы есть в ресторане (I’d like to eat at the restaurant)
- Мы хотели бы увидеть новую машину (We’d like to see the new machine)
As with English, this can also be used when making a polite request for something. However, this use is much less common in Russian than the English counterpart “I would like a…”
- Я хотел бы тарелку супа (I would like a bowl of soup)
The Conditional Mood With чтобы
The conditional mood is also used to express a desire for other people to do things or other actions to take place. These statements involve the conjunction чтобы. The main difference is that desire expressed with чтобы can have two different actors.
- Я хочу, чтобы ты знал (I want that you know (I want you to know))
You may have noticed that it’s a combination of the conjunction что and the particle бы. In fact, it's also pronounced like что with an SHTO (not chto). Additionally, you might also see its alternative form – чтоб.
You’ll see the conjugation чтобы a lot when people want other people or other things to do something.
- Он хочет, чтобы не было оружия (He wants there to be no weapons)
- Она не хотела, чтобы я пел (She didn’t want that I sang (She didn’t want me to sing)
So let’s break down what’s happening with чтобы. Word for word, you can see it as something like
|I||want||(that)||Liza would come/comes|
“I want Liza to come”
The first verb хотеть is conjugated in the present tense because хочу (I want) is a finite action that is happening.
The verb прийти (to come, to arrive) is in the conditional mood however because Liza’s arrival is uncertain and hypothetical. As such, it’s formed like a past tense verb.
Let’s look at some other sentences that use чтобы.
- Влад хочет, чтобы пошел дождь (Vlad wants it to rain)
- Они хотят, чтобы фильм продолжался (They want the movie to keep going)
There are a few other verbs that use чтобы as well. This includes желать (to wish), просить (to ask), and (по)требовать (to demand).
- Влад желает, чтобы пошел дождь (Vlad wishes/desires for it to rain)
- Они просят, чтобы фильм продолжался (They ask for the film to keep going)
Important Note About The Conjunction чтобы
The conjunction чтобы is only used with conjugated verbs in the Russian past tense. You cannot use чтобы with a verb in either the present or future tense.
- Я хочу, чтобы она пришла I want her to come CORRECT
- Я хочу, чтобы она
придетI want her to coming* INCORRECT
- Я хочу, чтобы она
будет приходитьI want her to will come* INCORRECT
Other Uses Of чтобы And бы
Both the words чтобы and бы have other uses outside of the conditional that you might run into as well. Чтобы can sometimes be used to express “in order to” with infinitives.
In this structure, the two verbs refer to the same actor:
- Я позвонила, чтобы сказать “привет.” (I called (in order) to say “hello”)
- Он встал, чтобы открыть окно (He stood up (in order) to open the window)
You’ll learn other idiosyncrasies as you continue with Russian. So while this covers the main uses of the conditional, чтобы, and бы, it’s worth knowing that you might run into some exceptions every now and again, especially in older texts and set expressions.
- чтобы я не забыл (lest I forget)
- Не то чтобы я боюсь (it’s not that I’m afraid)
- Как бы не пошёл дождь ((I'm worried) that it's going to rain)
Going Further With The Russian Conditional Tense
So there you have it – a quick and simple overview of the Russian conditional tense. At this point, you should have a basic understanding of:
- When to use the Russian conditional
- How the conditional works with wants and wishes
- Forming the conditional with бы
- Conditional statements with чтобы
Knowing all that, you could now talk freely about different hypothetical situations, discussing what would be under different conditions.
Of course, you can find lots of possible and hypothetical situations in stories. So follow the rules of StoryLearning and read books in Russian. You'll master the Russian conditional tense before you know it by reading.
So you can imagine how much this will bring to your speaking. And now that you know, I invite you to go out and talk about what would be!
Удача из удач (Best of luck!)