English Conditionals: An Introduction

Summary: Everything you need to know about English Conditionals.

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First Published: 12th Dec. 2006 | Last Edited: 21st Dec. 2018

The English Conditional

There are a number of structures in English that are called the conditionals which are used to talk about possible or imaginary situations. A "Condition" is a "situation or circumstance".

For example: If a certain condition is true, then a particular result happens.

There are four basic conditionals that we use in English:

There are some more conditionals formed by mixing some of these four. To learn more about these, see our glossary entry: English Conditionals.

Structure of Conditional Sentences

The structure of the conditionals is straightforward. There are two basic possibilities in terms of order in the sentence:

IF Condition Result
If it rains, we will get wet

or like this:

Result IF Condition
We will get wet if it rains.

Notice that we only use a comma in the first example.

Conditionals: Time and Probability Table

Probability Conditional Example Time
Certain zero conditional If you heat water to 100 degrees celsius, it boils any time
Likely first conditional If it rains, I will stay in. future
Unlikely second conditional If I won the lottery, I would retire. future
Impossible second conditional If I had the money, I would lend it to you present
Impossible third conditional If I had seen him, I would have given him the message. past

Zero Conditional: Certainty

The Zero conditional is used for things that are always true as long as the condition is met.

IF Condition Result Situation
  present simple present simple  
If you heat water to 100 degrees celsius, it boils. fact- universal
  present simple present simple  
If drink coffee, get a headache. fact- personal

In these examples, the result will always occur if the condition is met, so the time is not important.

First Conditional: A real possibility in the future

A First Conditional sentence is one connecting two future actions, where one must take place before the second is possible. Take a student who wants to go to university but hasn't got the results of their exams yet. They cannot go to university until they have received their results. In the case of a good student who is expected to get good grades, then there is a good possibility of achieving the marks required to get to university, so the following sentence could be used:

IF Condition Result
  present simple WILL + base verb
If she gets good grades, she will go to university.

We are talking about the future, but we use a present tense for the condition and will for the result. In this case, the person is sure about going to university. We can use other modal verbs in the result part of the sentence:

IF Condition Result Possibility
If she gets good grades, she will go to university. If the condition is met, then she definitely will go
If he gets good grades, he may go to university. He is not sure about going to university.
If she gets good grades, she should go to university. The speaker is expressing his or her opinion, giving advice.
If he gets good grades, he can go to university. This means that it is possible.
If she gets good grades, she could go to university. This means that it is possible, but not that likely.
If he gets good grades, he might go to university. This means that it is possible, but not that likely.

We can also use different present forms in the condition part of the sentence:

IF Condition Reason for tense Result
  present simple an action in the future  
If see her,   I'll ask her about it.
  present progressive an unfinished present action  
If they are still working,   I'll go home.
  present progressive a future arrangement  
If they are going,   I'll stay at home.
  present perfect a finished action related to now  
If you have finished your meal,   I'll clear away the plates.
  WILL + base verb making an agreement WILL + base verb
If you will work late today,   will let you have Friday off.
  WILL + base verb expressing displeasure because someone insists on doing something WILL + base verb
If you will drive too fast,   the police will stop you.

Second Conditional: Imaginary Present or Unlikely Future

The Second Conditional can be used used to talk about imaginary present situations, where we are imagining something different from what is really the case. We can also use it to talk about things in the future that are unlikely to happen, as the condition is unlikely to be met. We use the past tense in the condition part and would for the result.

IF Condition Time Result Possibility
  past simple present WOULD + base verb impossible
If had the time,   would learn Italian. I don't have the time, so I'm not going to learn Italian.
  past simple future WOULD + base verb unlikely
If won the lottery   would travel around the world. There's a very small chance of winning the lottery, so the trip is unlikely

We can use other modal verbs in the past tense in the result part of the sentence:

IF Condition Result Certainty
  past simple WOULD + base verb  
If had the time, would learn Italian. Although unlikely to happen, the speaker is sure that they would do it given the opportunity.
If had more time, might learn Spanish. Although unlikely to happen, it is only a possibility anyway.
If had more time, should learn some more about IT. Although unlikely to happen, the speaker is saying that it would be a good idea, but is not committed to it.
If had more time could learn Hindi. Although unlikely to happen, it is only a possibility anyway.

With the verb to be, there are two forms that can be used with I, he, she & it:

IF Condition Result
I, he, she, it Were  
If were you, I'd marry her.
I, he, she, it Was  
If was you, I'd marry her.

Third Conditional: Imaginary Past

The Third Conditional is used when we are talking about the past and imagining something different from what actually happened:

  Condition Result What actually happened
  Past Perfect WOULD HAVE + Past Participle  
If had known, would have helped. I didn't know and didn't help.

 

IF Condition Result Certainty
  past perfect WOULD HAVE+ past participle  
If had known, would have helped. Although this didn't happen, the speaker is sure about the result.
If had known, could have helped. Although this didn't happen, the result is only a possibility.
If had known, might have helped. Although this didn't happen, the result is only a possibility.
If you had known, you should have helped. Although this didn't happen, it is only a good suggestion or piece of advice.

 

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