Conditionals – An Overview
By Rob Lane
Hello and welcome to this week’s article. In this article, we will look at the conditionals in English. We will see five conditionals: zero, first, second, third and mixed.
A conditional sentence is formed by a main clause (the consequence), a conjunction (if), and a conditional clause (the condition).
Jim will go to the beach if it is sunny.
There are many possible variations of the standard conditionals. You should pay attention to the functions and practice the structures of the five standard conditionals. Learners often have difficulty choosing the correct conditional for their idea (focus on function), and often make mistakes with the structure. Although several conjunctions are possible, in each case, I will use the most common in examples.
Function: Habits, tendencies, rules, and scientific facts.
Structure: When + Present Simple, Present Simple.
Example: When he is stressed, he exercises.
Function: Probable future, predictions, promises, threats, and offers.
Structure: If + Present Simple, will/ modal + verb
Example: If Sally is hungry later, she will eat something.
Time: Hypothetical future, abstract
Function: Fantasy, improbable future, hypothesis, and negotiations.
Structure: If + Past Simple, would/ modal + verb
Example: If I was rich, I would travel around the world.
Time: Hypothetical past
Function: Regrets, comments about past situations.
Structure: If + Past Perfect, would/ modal + have + past participle.
Example: If I had not studied English, I would have studied Arabic.
Time: Past (condition) and present (consequence).
Function: Regrets, comments about past situations that have present consequences.
Structure: If + Past Perfect, would/ modal + verb
Example: If I had studied Arabic at school, I could speak Arabic now.
There are similarities in structure between the different conditionals. However, you should be careful to recognise the differences.
Zero and First Conditional
Both zero and first conditional use present simple in their conditional clauses. But, the zero conditional is used to speak in general about the present whereas the first conditional speaks about a specific future. Compare;
If I am hungry, I eat. (Generally)
If I am hungry, I will eat. (Later)
First and Second Conditional
These conditionals are used for future. However, the first is used when the speaker thinks this situation is probable. If it is just an idea, the second conditional is used. Compare;
If the sky is clear later, I will look at the stars.
If I was an astronaut, I would look at the stars all the time.
First: probable future. Second: improbable future.
Second, Third, and Mixed Conditional.
All of these conditionals are hypothetical: second for present to future, and the third for past. The mixed conditional combines the two. That is to say that in third, both the condition and consequence are past whereas in the mixed, the condition is past and the consequence is present. Compare;
If Charlotte had studied German more, she would have passed her exam.
If she had studied more, she could speak German today.
If Tom is tired, he goes to bed early. (Zero – tendency)
If you cool water, it becomes ice. (Zero – Scientific fact)
If I finish work on time, I can meet my friend the restaurant. (First – probable future)
If you give me that bicycle, I will pay you €250. (First – offer)
If it snowed in summer, I would be very surprised. (Second – improbable future)
If I found a big bag of cash, I would buy a motorcycle. (Fantasy)
If I had not gone to the cinema on Friday, I could have gone to the restaurant with my friends on Saturday. (Third – regret)
If Gerry had worn a scarf on that cold day, he would not be sick not. (Mixed – hypothetical – past condition, present consequence)
Do practice exercises from a grammar book to become familiar with the structures.
Write dialogues to practice the functions.