39 Would, Could: Conditionals


In Croatian, there is a special verb construction called conditional ®. It represents desires or things that might happen. For instance, phrases I would... (or you could) are often represented by conditionals in Croatian.

Conditional is a compound form: it’s constructed from the past form, and a special conditional verb, having with the following forms:

person sing. plur.
1st bih² bismo²
2nd bi² biste²
3rd bi²

In everyday speech of many people, just bi² is used in all persons and numbers, but it’s not standard. Just bi² is also quite frequent in casual writing – these are results by Google™ on the .hr domain:

"mi bismo" 46800
"mi bi" 71000

Let’s compare the following sentences in present:

Jedemjesti. I am eating.

I can eat. ®

With ones in conditional (as indicated by the superscript ², the conditional verb wants to be at the second position):

I would (like to) eat. {m}

I could eat. {f} ®

The English I could eat is ambiguous: it could mean that you had the ability in the past, or that you’re thinking about it right now (conditional). Croatian does not have such an ambiguity:

bih jesti.
{f} (now, conditional)

sam jesti.
{f} (past)

Croatian mogla bih actually corresponds to English I would be able to.

People use conditionals a lot when trying to be polite or soften expressions, but it could be ironic as well:

I want to eat. (not polite)

Htio bih jesti. {m} (much more polite)

Another example:

Želim kupiti majicu. I want to buy a T-shirt. (not polite)

Želio bih kupiti majicu. {m} (much more polite)

Kupio bih majicu. {m} (also polite)

Actually, most often desires are expressed using conditionals (these are examples for the masc. gender in 1st person – I hope you’re able to work out others):

Volio bih...  
Htio bih...
Želio bih...
     I’d like... {m}

As you see, the verb voljeti (voli,...) love shifts its meaning in conditional a bit – there’s no real difference in meaning of the three verbs above in conditional. (I’ll explain various ways to use the verb voljeti (voli,...) love in conditional in 56 Desires and Demands.)

When the verb trebati need is put into conditional and used with another verb in infinitive, it’s just a bit softened, and usually means should:

Trebala bih spavati. I should sleep. {f} ®

Trebala bi spavati. You should sleep. {to f} (or She should...)

It’s possible to soften any verb with conditional:

Morao bih jesti. I’d have to eat. {m}

Sometimes, the conditional verb is used just like a regular verb, for every desire, not just with verbs (it’s quite informal, children mostly talk like that):

Ja bih čokoladu. (colloq.) ‘I’d a chocolate.’ = I’d like a chocolate.

What if we have more than one second-position word? Then the conditional verb is placed before everything else that also requires the second place (that is, words like me², se², etc.):

Ivan bi me1 A trebao zvati. Ivan should call me.

Goran bi se igrao. Ivan would like to play.

If you want to express negative conditional, just place a ne¨ in front of the conditional verb. These two words must then stay together and are usually found right before the past form:

Ne bih moglamoći
I couldn’t eat. {f}

Ivan me1 A ne bi trebao zvati. Ivan shouldn’t call me.

Goran se ne bi igrao. Ivan wouldn’t like to play.

The negation with the conditional verb behaves like one word that can be placed anywhere, despite being spelled as two words. Since the conditional verb is short (one syllable) the stress shifts to ne¨ even in the ‘western’ stress scheme (as indicated by the underlines above). As a result, you’ll sometimes see (non-standard) spellings nebi and like.

To make questions in conditional, just use the normal methods. When the conditional verb is used in questions, it can be placed at the first position.

Conditional is frequently used in short negative responses, when someone is asked if he or she wants to do something:

u kino?
Do you want to go to the cinema? ®

Ne bih, hvala. I wouldn’t, thanks.

There’s a construction in Croatian that corresponds to the English preference construction:

cond + radije ... nego ... would rather ... than ...

Both parts – after radije and nego are in conditional, but the conditional verb is not repeated in the second part. The word radije can be shuffled around a bit, but nego cannot:

Radije bih čitao knjigu nego gledao televiziju. I’d rather read a book than watch TV. {m}

Pay attention how the verb after nego is also in past forms: both parts are in conditional, just the second bih is left out.

In both Croatian and English, the verb in the second part is left out if it’s repeated, however, you have to pay attention to use the right case in Croatian:

Radije bih pio čaj nego kavu. I’d rather drink tea than coffee. {m} ®

You can even leave the verb completely if you would like to get something:

Radije bih čaj nego kavu.

This is also often used in short responses:

Želiš li kavu? Do you want coffee?

Radije bih čaj. I’d prefer tea.

Conditionals are also used in special, conditional sentences, corresponding to English "if I were... I would". They are described in 70 If I Were: Conditional Sentences.

(There’s another form, so-called past conditional, but it’s very rare in everyday communication. It will be covered in 99 Aorist Tense and Other Marginal Features.)


® In Serbian grammars, the conditional is often called potential. The forms are the same.

Instead of infinitives, in Serbia, especially in speech, da + present prevails, so examples would usually look like:

da jedemjesti.
I can eat.

bih da jedemjesti.
I could eat. {f}

Standard Serbian insists that the verb trebati need/should must be used impersonally with another verb, so the standard option in Serbia is only:

Trebalo bi da spavam. lit. ‘It’s needed that I sleep.’ = I should sleep.

However, in real speech there’s much more freedom.

Instead of kino and kava, the words bioskop and kafa are used in Serbia and most of Bosnia for cinema and coffee.

↓ Examples (click to show)

↓ Exercise (click to show)

5 Easy Croatian: 39 Would, Could: Conditionals N A  DL  G 24 I In Croatian, there is a special verb construction called conditional ® . It represents desires or things that m...

↓ 9 comments (click to show)