Conditions of the Conditionals
Updated: Jun 25, 2018
The conditional tenses in English can cause confusion for English learners, not just regarding how to form them correctly, but also when to use them.
The key thing to remember with this tense, is that conditionals are used to talk about conditions (surprise, surprise!) What we mean by a condition in this context is,
A state of affairs that must exist or be brought about before something else is possible or permitted.
Think of your mum - this is the kind of tense she probably uses frequently when she's telling you when you can do something, or what you should have done, usually with the word, 'if':
"If you eat your vegetables, I'll give you some dessert..." (first conditional (aka bribery)).
"If money grew on trees, I would buy you that designer jacket..." (second conditional (aka impossible)).
"If you had worn your coat, you wouldn't have got a cold..." (third conditional (aka I told you so!))
So... let's take a closer look!
The "Zero" Conditional
Example sentence: If you heat water to 100 degrees, it boils.
"If" Clause: If you heat water to 100 degrees, (verb: present simple)
Main Clause: it boils. (verb: present simple)
Explanation: With the #zeroconditional, we are stating a fact, and talking about general situations that are always true. Any time you heat water to 100 degrees, it will always boil.
Note: You can use the words, if, when, or whenever, here.
Other examples: If people eat too much, they get fat (this doesn't seem to put people off though...) If people don't eat anything, they die (hopefully we can strike a balance somewhere between the two!)
The "First" Conditional
Example sentence: If I see John, I will give him your phone number.
"If" Clause: If I see John, (verb: present simple)
Main Clause: I will give him your phone number. (verb: future simple (will + infinitive))
Explanation: With the #firstconditional, we are stating something that is real and possible, on condition that something else happens (if something else happens). We are also referring to a specific situation, or what the speaker thinks is likely to happen.
Other examples: If you live in England, you will improve your English (unless you hide in your house and Skype your friends at home in China all day). If he is late, we will have to go without him (unless he has the car keys.)
The "Second" Conditional
Example sentence: If I became a billionaire, I would buy Buckingham Palace.
"If" Clause: If I became a billionaire, (verb: past simple)
Main Clause: I would buy Buckingham Palace. (verb: would + infinitive)
Explanation: With the #secondconditional, we are talking about what the speaker thinks of as a present impossibility or an improbable future possibility.
Other examples: If I knew her name, I would tell you, (but this is impossible because I don't know her name: present impossibility). If I were the Queen of the world, I would make everybody wear pink clothes, (but (fortunately for you) this is rather unlikely to occur: improbable future possibility!)
The "Third" Conditional
Example sentence: If I had bought that sparkly new dress, I would have looked fabulous at the party.
"If" Clause: If I had bought that sparkly new dress, (verb: past perfect)
Main Clause: I would have looked fabulous at the party. (verb: would + have + past participle)
Explanation: With the #thirdconditional, we are talking about unreal situations that are in the past. In other words, things that did not happen, but what we imagine could have happened in the past, if we had done things differently. But we didn't. So this is only used for hypothetical situations and imaginings.
Other examples: If I had taken that new job, I would have made loads of money (unfortunately I didn't take the job). If I hadn't lost my umbrella, I wouldn't have got so wet (I really should have looked after it more carefully).
So, remember, as we move through the conditional tenses, things get more and more unlikely, and further and further into the past!
A few more things to note...
1) The if clause and the main clause can be swapped around... If you put the main clause first, then you don't need a comma (,).
If I were a duck, I would live in a pond. = I would live in a pond if I were a duck.
2) We do not normally use the words will or would in the if clause. However, if these words are expressing a request, such as in the sentence, If you will follow me, sir... or I would be grateful if you could help me with... then you can use it, you sound really polite and it's a good way to suck up to somebody...!
3) Instead of if not, we can use unless to express the same idea of a condition.
If the plane isn't late, I'll buy some duty free chocolate on the way out. = Unless the plane is late, I'll buy some duty free chocolate on the way out.
4) The Mixed Conditional is used when the time in the if clause is not the same as the time in the main clause. There are many different options here. But we'll leave that for another post...
5) With the Second Conditional, we can use were instead of was with I and he/she/it. This is mostly done in formal writing. With the other conditionals, we can use other modal verbs instead of would, such as could, might, may, and other words instead of if like when, as soon as, or in case.
So, that's all on the conditionals for now, guys. Have fun making up some silly sentences to practice your conditionals below, and leave your answers for us in a comment!
If I was (/were) a camel...
If I never had to work again...
If I was (/were) the most intelligent genius ever known to mankind...
If I could fly...
If I knew how to...
If I was (/were) invisible...
BEFORE YOU GO... check out the English bytes from today's post:
aka : also known as e.g. Elvis, aka The King of Rock 'n' Roll.
to suck up (to somebody): to be extra nice/extra polite (behave obsequiously), especially for one's own advantage e.g. John is sucking up to the boss this week because he wants to take an extra day of leave next weekend.