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English Grammar Notes | Conditional Sentences

Conditional tenses are used to speculate about what could happen, what might have happened, and what we wish would happen. In English, most sentences using the conditional contain the word if. Many conditional forms in English are used in sentences that include verbs in one of the past tenses. This usage is referred to as “the unreal past” because we use a past tense but we are not actually referring to something that happened in the past. There are five main ways of constructing conditional sentences in English. In all cases, these sentences are made up of an if clause and a main clause. In many negative conditional sentences, there is an equivalent sentence construction using “unless” instead of “if”.

Conditional sentence type Usage If clause verb tense Main clause verb tense
Zero General truths Simple present Simple present
Type 1 A possible condition and its probable result Simple present Simple future
Type 2 A hypothetical condition and its probable result Simple past Present conditional or Present continuous conditional
Type 3 An unreal past condition and its probable result in the past Past perfect Perfect conditional
Mixed type An unreal past condition and its probable result in the present Past perfect Present contditional

THE ZERO CONDITIONAL

The zero conditional is used for when the time being referred to is now or always and the situation is real and possible. The zero conditional is often used to refer to general truths. The tense in both parts of the sentence is the simple present. In zero conditional sentences, the word “if” can usually be replaced by the word “when” without changing the meaning.

If clause Main clause
If + simple present simple present
If this thing happens that thing happens.
If you heat ice it melts.
If it rains the grass gets wet.

As in all conditional sentences, the order of the clauses is not fixed. You may have to rearrange the pronouns and adjust punctuation when you change the order of the clauses, but the meaning is identical. In zero conditional sentences, you can replace “if” with “when”, because both express general truths. The meaning will be unchanged.

If + Present Simple, Present Simple

Present Simple + If + Present Simple

EXAMPLES

  • If you heat ice, it melts.
  • Ice melts if you heat it.
  • When you heat ice, it melts.
  • Ice melts when you heat it.
  • If it rains, the grass gets wet.
  • The grass gets wet if it rains.
  • When it rains, the grass gets wet.
  • The grass gets wet when it rains.

The zero conditional is used to make statements about the real world, and often refers to general truths, such as scientific facts. In these sentences, the time is now or always and the situation is real and possible.

EXAMPLES

  • If you freeze water, it becomes a solid.
  • Plants die if they don’t get enough water.
  • If my husband has a cold, I usually catch it.
  • If public transport is efficient, people stop using their cars.
  • If you mix red and blue, you get purple.

The zero conditional is also often used to give instructions, using the imperative in the main clause.

EXAMPLES
  • If Bill phones, tell him to meet me at the cinema.
  • Ask Pete if you’re not sure what to do.
  • If you want to come, call me before 5:00.
  • Meet me here if we get separated.

TYPE 1 CONDITIONAL

The type 1 conditional is used to refer to the present or future where the situation is real. The type 1 conditional refers to a possible condition and its probable result. In these sentences the if clause is in the simple present, and the main clause is in the simple future.

If clause Main clause
If + simple present simple future
If this thing happens that thing will happen.
If you don’t hurry you will miss the train.
If it rains today you will get wet.

If + Present verb, future verb

This structure is common when talking about possible plans, promises, warnings, threats or for persuading someone. We are predicting a likely result in the future if a condition is fulfilled.

If + Simple Present, Will / Won’t …

  • If I go to Paris next month for work, I’ll visit the Eiffel Tower (Plans)
  • If I have time, I will help you. (Promise)
  • If you touch that wire, you will get an electric shock. (Warning)
  • If you eat my chocolate that is in the fridge, you’ll sleep outside with the dog.(Threat)
  • If you take me to the mall, I’ll buy you an ice cream. (Persuasion)
  • If she doesn’t go to university, her parents won’t be happy.
  • If it rains, we will cancel the trip.
  • If that candidate becomes President, the country will be in trouble.
  • If I win the competition, I will donate half of the prize money to charity.

Notice how we use a comma after the present tense clause.

We can also reverse the order and use:

Future Verb + If + Present Simple

  • I will be annoyed if they don’t arrive on time.
  • You will get a better job if you can speak English.
  • You will miss the bus if you don’t hurry.
  • The dog will bite you if you pull its tail.
  • Your boss will be angry if you don’t finish the job.
  • What will you do if they fire you?
  • You will feel better if you take this medicine.

Notice how the comma is not necessary with this word order.

Modal Verbs in First Conditional

Normally WILL is used in the main clause of first conditional sentences. However you can also use the modal verbs MAY, MIGHT and COULD when something is a possible consequence (and not a certain one) in the future.

  • If you are nice to me, I may buy you a gift when I’m in Peru.
  • If they train a little harder, they might win the match.
  • If he doesn’t do his work, he could get fired.

TYPE 2 CONDITIONAL

The type 2 conditional is used to refer to a time that is now or any time, and a situation that is unreal. These sentences are not based on fact. The type 2 conditional is used to refer to a hypothetical condition and its probable result. In type 2 conditional sentences, the if clause uses the simple past, and the main clause uses the present conditional.

If clause Main clause
If + simple past present conditional or present continuous conditional
If this thing happened that thing would happen. (but I’m not sure this thing will happen) OR
that thing would be happening.
If you went to bed earlier you would not be so tired.
If it rained you would get wet.
If I spoke Italian I would be working in Italy.

When we are thinking about a situation in the present or future that is hypothetical, unlikely or impossible, we use:

If + Past Simple, …Would + Verb

We use a past verb though are imagining the present or the future to be different.

The second clause of subject + would + verb (conditional verb) is conditional to the first clause happening (or will only happen if the first part/clause happens).

Example: If I won the lottery, I would travel around the world.

= It is unlikely that I will win the lottery, but I’m going to hypothetically imagine that I did win. In that situation I would travel around the world. So in order for me to travel around the world, I would need the first clause (the condition or situation) to happen, that is, for me to win the lottery first.

  • If I won the lottery, I would travel around the world. (Though I am unlikely to win the lottery)
  • If I knew his name, I would tell you.
  • If I didn’t have a headache, I would go to the party.
  • If I became President, I would reduce the salaries of all politicians. (Though it is unlikely I will become President)

Notice how we use a comma after the past tense clause.

We can also reverse the order and use:

Conditional verb (would + verb) + If + Past Simple

  • I would be happy if I had more free time.
  • I would tell you the answer if I knew what it was.
  • There would be fewer accidents if everyone drove more carefully.
  • We would have a lot of money if we sold our house.
  • Would she come if I paid for her flight?
  • Would you accept the job if they offered it to you?
  • What would you do if you won the lottery?
  • What would you do if you saw a U.F.O?

Notice how the comma is not necessary with this word order.

If I were …

Note that with the verb To Be we use IF + I / HE / SHE / IT + WERE

The reason we use WERE instead of WAS is because the sentence is in the Subjunctive mood.

  • If I were not in debt, I would quit my job.
  • If he were taller, he’d be accepted into the team.
  • She would be still be correcting my grammar if she were still alive.

Though in informal English, you will hear some people say If I was… If he was… etc. This usage doesn’t sound good though unfortunately is common.

Could in Second Conditional sentences

COULD can be used instead of WOULD to make the hypothetical present or future more likely.

  • If he trained every day, he could represent his country
  • If I had a little more money, I could buy a car.

TYPE 3 CONDITIONAL

The type 3 conditional is used to refer to a time that is in the past, and a situation that is contrary to reality. The facts they are based on are the opposite of what is expressed. The type 3 conditional is used to refer to an unreal past condition and its probable past result. In type 3 conditional sentences, the if clause uses the past perfect, and the main clause uses the perfect conditional.

If clause Main clause
If + past perfect perfect conditional or perfect continuous conditional
If this thing had happened that thing would have happened. (but neither of those things really happened) OR
that thing would have been happening.
If you had studied harder you would have passed the exam.
If it had rained you would have gotten wet.
If I had accepted that promotion I would have been working in Milan.

When we are talking about something in the past which cannot be altered now, we use:

If + Past Perfect, would have + past participle

EXAMPLE: If you had studied all of these grammar pages, you would have passed the exam.

You can not alter or change the past. You didn’t study in the past (something you cannot change now) so you didn’t pass the exam. It is an imaginary situation that didn’t happen.

  • If you had been more careful, you wouldn’t have had an accident.
  • If I had seen you, I would have said hello.
  • If he had asked me, I would have helped him.
  • If you had studied, they would have passed the exam.
  • If I had known, I wouldn’t have done that.

Notice how this tense can be used to say that you regret doing something or when you are telling someone off (reproaching someone). This type of conditional can also be used when making excuses.

We can also change the word order of the sentence…

Would have + If + past perfect

EXAMPLE: You would have passed the exam if you had studied all of these grammar pages.

  • I wouldn’t have left my job if I had known how difficult it is to find another one.
  • I would have taken a photo if I had brought my camera with me.
  • He would have died if the ambulance hadn’t arrived quickly.
  • She would have gone to your birthday party if she hadn’t been sick.
  • He wouldn’t have become lost if he had taken the map with him.
  • The team would have won if the referee hadn’t taken the bribe.
  • You wouldn’t have needed fillings if you had brushed your teeth more frequently.

CONTRACTIONS

Both would and had can be contracted to ‘d, which can be confusing if you are not confident with type 3 conditional sentences. Remember 2 rules:
1. would never appears in the if-clause so if ‘d appears in the if clause, it must be abbreviating had.
2. had never appears before have so if ‘d appears on a pronoun just before have, it must be abbreviating would.

EXAMPLES
  • If I’d known you were in hospital, I’d have visited you.
  • If I had known you were in hospital, I would have visited you.
  • I’d have bought you a present if I’d known it was your birthday.
  • I would have bought you a present if I had known it was your birthday.
  • If you’d given me your e-mail, I’d have written to you.
  • If you had given me your e-mail, I would have written to you.

THE PERFECT CONDITIONAL TENSE

The perfect conditional of any verb is composed of three elements:
would + have + past participle
Have followed by the past participle is used in other constructions as well. it is called the “perfect infinitive”.

Subject + would + have + past participle
He would have gone
They would have stayed

TO GO: PERFECT CONDITIONAL

Affirmative Negative Interrogative Interrogative Negative
I would have gone I wouldn’t have gone Would I have gone? Wouldn’t I have gone?
You would have gone You wouldn’t have gone Would you have gone? Wouldn’t you have gone?
He would have gone He wouldn’t have gone Would he have gone? Wouldn’t he have gone?
She would have gone She wouldn’t have gone Would she have gone? Wouldn’t she have gone?
We would have gone We wouldn’t have gone Would we have gone? Wouldn’t we have gone?
They would have gone They wouldn’t have gone Would they have gone? Wouldn’t they have gone?

PERFECT CONTINUOUS CONDITIONAL

In type 3 conditional sentences, the perfect form of the present conditional may be used.

If clause (condition) Main clause (result)
If + past perfect perfect continuous conditional
If this thing had happened that thing would have been happening.

FUNCTION

The perfect continuous conditional can be used in type 3 conditional sentences. It refers to the unfulfilled result of the action in the if-clause, and expresses this result as an unfinished or continuous action.

EXAMPLES
  • If the weather had been better (but it wasn’t), I’d have been sitting in the garden when he arrived (but I wasn’t).
  • If she hadn’t got a job in London (but she did), she would have been working in Paris (but she wasn’t).
  • If I had had a ball I would have been playing football.
  • If I had known it was dangerous I wouldn’t have been climbing that cliff.

THE PERFECT CONTINUOUS CONDITIONAL TENSE

The perfect continuous conditional tense of any verb is composed of four elements:
would + have + been + present participle
The present participle is formed by taking the base form of the verb and adding the -ing ending.

Subject + would + have + been + present participle
He would have been staying
They would have been going

TO WORK: PERFECT CONTINUOUS CONDITIONAL

Affirmative Negative Interrogative Interrogative Negative
I would have been living I wouldn’t have been living Would I have been living? Wouldn’t I have been living?
You would have been living You wouldn’t have been living Would you have been living? Wouldn’t you have been living?
He would have been living He wouldn’t have been living Would he have been living? Wouldn’t he have been living?
She would have been living She wouldn’t have been living Would she have been living? Wouldn’t she have been living?
We would have been living We wouldn’t have been living Would we have been living? Wouldn’t we have been living?
They would have been living They wouldn’t have been living Would they have been living? Wouldn’t they have been living?

MIXED TYPE CONDITIONAL

The mixed type conditional is used to refer to a time that is in the past, and a situation that is ongoing into the present. The facts they are based on are the opposite of what is expressed. The mixed type conditional is used to refer to an unreal past condition and its probable result in the present. In mixed type conditional sentences, the if clause uses the past perfect, and the main clause uses the present conditional.

If clause Main clause
If + past perfect or simple past present conditional or perfect conditional
If this thing had happened that thing would happen. (but this thing didn’t happen so that thing isn’t happening)
If I had worked harder at school I would have a better job now.
If we had looked at the map we wouldn’t be lost.
If you weren’t afraid of spiders you would have picked it up and put it outside.

PRESENT RESULT OF A PAST CONDITION

FORM

In this type of mixed conditional sentence, the tense in the ‘if’ clause is the past perfect, and the tense in the main clause is the present conditional.

If clause (condition) Main clause (result)
If + past perfect present conditional
If this thing had happened that thing would happen.

As in all conditional sentences, the order of the clauses is not fixed. You may have to rearrange the pronouns and adjust punctuation when you change the order of the clauses, but the meaning is identical.

EXAMPLES

  • If I had worked harder at school, I would have a better job now.
  • I would have a better job now if I had worked harder at school.
  • If we had looked at the map we wouldn’t be lost.
  • We wouldn’t be lost if we had looked at the map.
  • If you had caught that plane you would be dead now.
  • You would be dead now if you had caught that plane.

FUNCTION

This type of mixed conditional refers to an unreal past condition and its probable result in the present. These sentences express a situation which is contrary to reality both in the past and in the present. In these mixed conditional sentences, the time is the past in the “if” clause and in the presentin the main clause.

EXAMPLES

  • If I had studied I would have my driving license. (but I didn’t study and now I don’t have my license)
  • I would be a millionaire now if I had taken that job. (but I didn’t take the job and I’m not a millionaire)
  • If you had spent all your money, you wouldn’t buy this jacket. (but you didn’t spend all your money and now you can buy this jacket)

In these mixed conditional sentences, you can also use modals in the main clause instead of would to express the degree of certainty, permission, or a recommendation about the outcome.

EXAMPLES

  • If you had crashed the car, you might be in trouble.
  • I could be a millionaire now if I had invested in ABC Plumbing.
  • If I had learned to ski, I might be on the slopes right now.

PAST RESULT OF PRESENT OR CONTINUING CONDITION

FORM

In this second type of mixed conditional sentence, the tense in the ‘if’ clause is the simple past, and the tense in the main clause is the perfect conditional.

If clause (condition) Main clause (result)
If + simple past perfect conditional
If this thing happened that thing would have happened.

As in all conditional sentences, the order of the clauses is not fixed. You may have to rearrange the pronouns and adjust punctuation when you change the order of the clauses, but the meaning is identical.

EXAMPLES

  • If I wasn’t afraid of spiders, I would have picked it up.
  • I would have picked it up if I wasn’t afraid of spiders.
  • If we didn’t trust him we would have sacked him months ago.
  • We would have sacked him months ago if we didn’t trust him.
  • If I wasn’t in the middle of another meeting, I would have been happy to help you.
  • I would have been happy to help you if I wasn’t in the middle of another meeting.

FUNCTION

These mixed conditional sentences refer to an unreal present situation and its probable (but unreal) past result. In these mixed conditional sentences, the time in the if clause is now or always and the time in the main clause is before now. For example, “If I wasn’t afraid of spiders” is contrary to present reality. I am afraid of spiders. “I would have picked it up” is contrary to past reality. I didn’t pick it up.

EXAMPLES

  • If she wasn’t afraid of flying she wouldn’t have travelled by boat.
  • I’d have been able to translate the letter if my Italian was better.
  • If I was a good cook, I’d have invited them to lunch.
  • If the elephant wasn’t in love with the mouse, she’d have trodden on him by now.
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