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Need help understanding the difference between using the conditional and the imperfect subjunctive

Complete las siguientes oraciones, utilizando el condicional o el pasado de subjuntivo, según el contexto.
 
1. Mi vida sería pésima si...
2. Yo adoptaría a un niño / una niña de otro país si...
3. Si estuviera de vacaciones,...
4. Mis padres me extrañarían si...
5. Si tuviera más tiempo libre,...
6. Si no fuera estudiante,...
7. Si quisiera bajar de peso,...
8. Diego sería menos tacaño si...
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1 Answer

In all of these sentences, the key to knowing whether to use a clause with a verb in the condicional or the pasado de subjuntivo--or more likely, the imperfecto de subjuntivo, just as you wrote in your title: "imperfect subjunctive"--is the position of si 'if'. The situation is quite analogous to English, where the pattern is X if Y or If Y, X; the verb in the "Y" clause, following if, is technically in the present or past subjunctive, which is almost always identical to the normal simple present or past tenses, respectively, in Modern English except for a few moribund relics like if I were rich, informally if I was rich, just like the normal past indicative I was rich.
 
The verb in the "X" clause normally contains would (or its contraction 'd) plus the base form of the following verb, a construction that is indeed often referred to as "the conditional tense" (cf. Spanish el condicional).
 
Putting this all together, we can say My life would be awful if I had cancer or If I had cancer, my life would be awful. Very similarly, in Spanish, illustrated in your partial sentence 1., since si occurs after the first clause, whose verb is therefore the condicional of ser, namely sería, the verb in the si-clause must be in the imperfecto de subjuntivo, like tuviera, the i. s. of tener, as in yo tuviera cáncer 'I had cancer'.
 
Compare this with your partial sentence 3. which begins with Si and therefore the verb in its clause is the imperfecto de subjuntivo form estuviera. This means that you'll need a following main clause whose main verb must be in the condicional, like in Si estuviera de vacaciones, agradecería a Dios 'If I were/was on vacation, I would/I'd thank God'.