If you read this, you will understand more about the tricky conditional tense in English. That is my promise to you!
As is the case in other languages, when we speak in English we use the conditional tenses very often. “If” might be a small word, but it holds great meaning. Learning how to use the word “if” in English can be difficult, but I am going to make this easier by putting all, or at least most, of the rules onto one page.
Read on to learn about using the conditional tense in English.There are two kinds of conditionals in English: the real and the unreal. Remember this!
The “real conditional” speaks about real situations and/or events, and the “unreal conditional” describes unreal situations and/or events.
Below, I am going to break up the conditional into five different categories, often named the zero, first, second, third, and mixed conditionals forms.
What you need to know before we start
Make sure you learn the different verb forms, both regular and irregular. To view or download a list of common irregular verbs in English, click here.
Please note, I speak about the present tense, or base form of the verb, as V1. I speak about the past tense of the verb as V2, and the past participle as V3. Why? Because I think it makes it easier for students to learn. For example:
Learn when to use the conditional tense!
We use the zero conditional to talk about a general condition or fact. Something that usually happens.
Zero Conditional Form
- IF + SUBJECT + V1… | SUBJECT + V1…
- SUBJECT + V1… | IF + SUBJECT + V1…
Zero Conditional Examples:
I live in Miami so my sentences below describe common conditions and/or facts about life in Miami.
- If it rains in Miami, I use an umbrella.
- If it is cold in Miami, I wear a sweater.
- *When it is sunny in Miami, I go to the beach. (*When shows more frequency than If.)
- I use an umbrella if it rains in Miami.
- I wear a sweater if it is cold in Miami.
- I go to the beach when it is sunny in Miami.
We use when to describe a condition that is more frequent, usual or common. For example, if you live in London you might say, “When it rains, I take my brolly.” Or, “If it is sunny, I go to Hyde Park.” (PS. If you are wondering, “brolly” is short for umbrella in England.)
Be careful not to confuse if and when. Although it might seem like a small mistake, it can be confusing and change the meaning of a sentence or even a whole conversation.
Can you write sentences with similar structure about your city? For example:
- When I have a bbq, I put shrimp on the barby. (Australia, of course!)
- If I have time to make breakfast, I make arepas! (Venezuela, of course!)
I know we shouldn’t stereotype and lump everybody and everything together, but if it’s in the name of learning the conditional tense then I think it’s okay, right?
We use the first conditional to talk about a real possibility.
First Conditional Form:
- IF + SUBJECT + V1… | SUBJECT + WILL + V1…
- SUBJECT + WILL + V1… | IF + SUBJECT + V1…
First Conditional Examples:
- If it rains tomorrow, I will use an umbrella.
- If it is nice tomorrow, I will go to the beach.
- If I have time, I will call my mom.
- *When you come to Miami, I will buy you a drink. (*When shows more certainty than If.)
- I will use an umbrella if it rains tomorrow.
- I will go the beach if it is nice tomorrow.
- I will call my mom if I have time.
- I will buy you a drink when you come to Miami.
I sometimes hear students using will in the wrong clause. Don’t say, “If it will rain, I will stay home.” This is not necessary, and it’s wrong! Rather, say “If it rains, I will stay home.” In this sentence, you don’t need will to show the future, as it is already implied by using if and is in the second clause.
Using am going to instead of will
You might hear a speaker say, “If I have time, I am going to visit that museum.” This is okay. There is a slight difference in the implied meaning. In this case the speaker may be planning to have the time. You can think of this as a “controlled condition”. The speaker may intend to make the time available.
Using the Imperative with the Zero Conditional and the First Conditional
We can also use the imperative with the zero and first conditional. The imperative is a mood, or form, that is used to give a command or a permission.
- If it rains tomorrow, use an umbrella.
- If your English teacher gives you homework, do it!
- When it rains, use an umbrella.
- When your English teacher gives you homework, do it!
If you understand the zero and the first conditional, move on!
We use the second conditional to talk about an unreal possibility.
Second Conditional Form:
- IF + SUBJECT + *V2… | SUBJECT + WOULD + V1…
- SUBJECT + WOULD + V1… | IF + SUBJECT + *V2…
We use the past tense form, but we are not speaking about the past.Second Conditional Examples:
- If it snowed tomorrow, I would ski to class. (It won’t snow tomorrow)
- If I won the lottery, I would buy a new car. (The speaker doesn’t believe it is possible)
- I would call my Mom if I had time. (I don’t have time, so I will not call)
- If it *were nice today, I would go to the beach. (It’s bad weather today)
Use ‘were’ with all subjects, although ‘was‘ is commonly heard in spoken English.Common Mistake
Never use if + would + verb! Don’t say, “If I would win the lottery, I would buy a car” This is wrong! Don’t use would in the if clause. Rather, say “If I won the lottery, I would….”
The second conditional is often very difficult for students but it doesn’t have to be! It’s important to remember that we use the past tense to speak about things which we believe are impossible, unreal, or almost impossible. If you remember the form, and practice saying sentences using the second conditional over and over again, it makes it easier to form these sentences in speech.
As an English teacher, I do encourage you to always say “If I were…, If he were…” etc. But don’t be surprised if you hear Americans or other English speakers using was. English is always evolving and using was is becoming more acceptable.
When you are speaking, try contracting would, instead of saying it every time. It may be easier to say I’d, he’d, she’d, you’d, they’d, and even it’d rather saying would each time. In addition, native speakers usually contract would in speech anyways.
We use the third conditional to talk about an unreal possibility / condition in the past.
Third Conditional Form:
- IF + SUBJECT + HAD + V3… | SUBJECT + WOULD + HAVE + V3…
- SUBJECT + WOULD + HAVE + V3… | IF + SUBJECT + HAD + V3…
Third Conditional Examples:
- If it had snowed yesterday, I would have skied to class. (It didn’t snow yesterday.)
- If I hadn’t had time, I wouldn’t have called my Mom. (I had time, so I called.)
- If she had been sick, she wouldn’t have come to work. (She was not sick.)
- I would have called my Mom if I had had time. (I didn’t have time, so I didn’t call.)
- I would have bought a new car if I had won the lottery. (The speaker didn’t win.)
Just like in the second conditional, never use if + would + verb!
Another mistake that I hear often is simply not using the correct form. I think, this is a result of not hearing native speakers pronouncing each word clearly. In speech, native speakers normally contract both would and had into ‘d, for example, I’d, he’d, they’d etc. We also usually contract would have, could have, and should have into would’ve, could’ve, or should’ve, or even into would’a, could’a and should’a. The negative form of these are pronounced into wouldn’ve, couldn’ve, or shouldn’ve, or even into wouldna, couldna and shouldna. But today, isn’t the day to learn common contractions, or to study accent reduction!
Vamos, Let’s go! We are almost finished!
Now you know how to use the main forms of the conditional tenses in English. So, you’re done, right? No, unfortunately life is not that easy. If it were that easy, I wouldn’t be writing this blog and you wouldn’t be reading it either. I’d be sitting in my cabin in the mountains. What would you be doing?
Now we have to learn and practice mixed conditionals.
We use mixed conditionals to show how a past condition or possibility affects, or would affect, the present, or vice versa, which is how a present or general condition affects, or would have affected, the past.
There are a few forms or ways we can mix the conditionals. Look at the examples below to study some mixed conditional structures.Past Condition
If she had been sick,…
- … she wouldn’t have come to work.
(She came to work.)
- … she would be at home in bed.
(She is not in bed.)
If I had used sunscreen,…
- … I wouldn’t be as red as a lobster.
(I am red.)
- … I wouldn’t have gotten sunburned.
(I got sunburned.)
If I were taller,…
- … I would score more points when I play basketball.
(I don’t score many points.)
- … I would have played basketball in high school.
(I didn’t play basketball in high school.)
Sometimes students only study the zero, first, second, and third conditional and don’t realize that we often mix the conditionals according the meaning of the sentence. Many times past conditions affect the present or even the future. You can only change the present or the future, you can’t change the past!
There you go! We are done
If you hadn’t continued reading, you wouldn’t have finished and you still wouldn’t understand how to use the conditional tenses correctly.
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