Almost everyone who has learned English in class has probably had that lesson where you study second conditionals. In a second conditional, we use a past tense to describe an imagined, unlikely or impossible situation and would to describe the result or subsequent action that follows on from this imagined situation. And quite probably, the example sentence and practice was based on What would you do if you won the lottery? If I won the lottery, I would . . . . buy a big house.
What, after all, could be more unlikely than winning the lottery? In Britain, the current odds are around fourteen million to one! But what about the sign that you can see below? Millionaires (are) made here! Not Millionaires might possibly be made here, or Millionaires are as unlikely to be made here as you are to become the Prime Minister – or an astronaut – and a lot less likely than you being struck by lightning. No sign of a second conditional here! And that reflects very common usage, which is that we often state our hopes with a lot more certainty, and it’s not uncommon to hear people saying: ‘When I win the lottery, I’m going to …’ In a sense, anyone who happily spends a portion of their weekly wage on lottery tickets must presumably see winning as something possible – not hypothetical! Of course, though, both forms are completely correct and show differing degrees of hope and expectation, so if you got that grammar exercise ‘wrong’ and said “If I win...’ don’t be too worried as it’s also entirely possible!
There’s a series of ads for the lottery on TV at the moment. They each feature a well-known celebrity who many people find annoying and love to hate. The celebrity needs the lottery money to fund some ridiculous or annoying project and the ad encourages people to buy a ticket to stop them winning (Please! Not them!). Of course, the chances that a celebrity would ever buy a ticket are nil (not even 1 in 14 million) as they are already plenty rich enough (not least as a result of doing their well-paid lottery adverts!) and have no need for the false hope a lottery ticket offers. It’s all quite irritating, really!