Grammar

How Conditional Sentences Work: 5 EFfective tips from English Forward

Do conditional sentences give you problems? Do you have nightmares about first, second, third, zero and mixed conditionals?  You...

Jed Webb Written by Jed Webb · 6 min read >
How Conditional Sentences Work: 5 EFfective tips from English Forward 1

Do conditional sentences give you problems? Do you have nightmares about first, second, third, zero and mixed conditionals?  You are not alone. Many learners have these worries . Here are five tips to make life easier for you.

1. Stop worrying.

Some course books and student grammars suggest that there are five types of conditional sentences, first, second, third, mixed, and zero. They also often appear to suggest that every situation when we use ‘if’ can be shoe-horned into one of these categories, each of which has a rigidly prescribed set of tenses and forms of will/would.

This is simply not true, as you will see below. There is a tense system outlined briefly in Tip #2. Once you have mastered that, and it’s not difficult, you’ll find that you, the speaker, often have free choice about the verb forms you can use. There are several possibilities in many situations; it is not true that one, and only one set of verb forms is correct and that all the others are wrong.

2. Think ‘remote’

The key to the whole thing is this: tenses have more than one function in English. The obvious function is to refer to the time of the situation – present tense forms, (such as go(es), do(es), love(s) and will) normally refer to present time points or periods; past tense-forms (such as did, went, loved and would) refer to time points or periods that are remote in time, i.e., past. Here are some examples:

2.1. Andrea goes to work by bus (every day).

2.2. Andrea went to work by bus last week.

2.3. Lindsay is doing her homework at the moment.

2.4. Lindsay was doing her homework when I saw her last.

2.5. Luke loves cooking. He will spend hours in the kitchen preparing wonderful meals. (Note that will here indicates a habit or custom, not future certainty.)

2.6. When he was younger, Luke loved cooking. He would spend hours in the kitchen preparing wonderful meals. (would here indicates a past habit or custom.)

2.7. Ricky Rocker has announced that he will retire from show business next year.      (Note that, though his retirement  is in the future, the speaker is asserting Rocker’s  present certainty about this.

2.8. Frank Sinatra first said in 1970 that he would retire soon. He would go on recording and performing live for another 25 years.(Would indicates past certainty of things seen at that time as in the future.)

A second  function of tenses in English is to refer to the perceived reality of the situation – present tense forms, normally refer to situations that are seen as actual or clearly possible; past tense-forms refer to situations that are remote in reality, i.e. unlikely or even completely unreal. Here are some examples:

2.9. I hope my brothers are here next week.

2.10. I wish my brothers were here now.

In [2.9] the speaker thinks that there is a real possibility of his brothers being here next week.

In [2.10], The speaker knows that his brothers are not here.  His wish is for an unreal situation. The possibility is so remote as to be non-existent.

2.11. If Wendy comes early enough tomorrow, we can take her to the zoo.

2.12. If Wendy came early enough tomorrow, we could take her to the zoo.

In [2.11], the speaker present the possibility of Wendy coming early enough as real. In [2.12], she presents it as more remote. Only she knows how remote she feels the possibility is.

3. How to use tenses in conditional sentences, future and present time.

There are usually two clauses in a conditional sentence, the if– clause which states a condition/possibility, and the main clause, which states the situation if the condition/possibility actually happens/exists/happened/existed. So, what tenses do we use?

a. Real or Possible conditions:

If we consider that the condition is a reality, i.e., it already happens or has happened, or if we consider it to be a real possibility, then we simply use the tense that is appropriate for the time period we are thinking of. The only thing that you need to remember is that we don’t use will in the if-clause to express certainty about about a future possibility.

Here are some examples of ‘real’ conditions, those that are already happening or have happened. Note that, to make comparisons simpler, the if-clause comes first in all the examples. The meaning is the same if we reverse the order of the clause.

3.1. If I  was naughty as a child, my mother would send me to bed without any supper.

3.2. If you mix red and yellow, you get orange.

3.3. If you heat ice, it will melt.

In [3.1],  we are talking about things that actually occurred in the past. We use past tenses (i.e., remote in time). Would is the remote (past) form of will, which indicates habitual happenings. This sentence has the same form as the so-called ‘second conditional’, but it is not  a second conditional. It is not about hypothetical situations but about things that actually happened,

In [3.2], we are talking about things that happen generally. For ‘general’ time, we use a present tense.

In [3.3], we are also talking about things that happen generally.  In the main clause, will expresses our certainty about the situation; it is something that generally or habitually happens. This has the same form as the so-called ‘first conditional’, but it is about what generally happens, not what may possibly happen in the future.

Here are two examples of ‘possible’ conditions. We don’t know whether the condition happened/happens or will happen, but we think the happening is possible.

3.4. If Emma caught the early train this morning, she will arrive here soon.  

3.5. If I win the lottery next week, I will buy a private jet.

In [3.4], we use the past (= remote in time) tense for the past possibility –  we don’t know whether Emma caught the early train. In the main clause, we use will to express our certainty about the future result if the condition is fulfilled.

In [3.5], I use the present tense to talk about a future possibility; remember that we don’t use will to talk about future possibility. In the main clause, I use will to express my certainty about the future result if the condition is fulfilled.

b. Improbable or Unreal Conditions:

If we consider that the condition is a improbable or unreal, then we use a remote-in-possibility tense. Let’s start by looking at sentences with possible,  probable and unreal conditions:

3.5. If I win the lottery next week, I will buy a private jet.

3.6. If I won the lottery next week, I would buy a private jet.

3.7. If your  father were alive, he would be very unhappy about the current political situation.

In [3.5], as we’ve already seen, I am talking about a future possibility.

In [3.6], I see the possibility as remote. If I may know that this is impossible (because I never buy lottery tickets), but the sentence itself does not indicate the precise degree of improbability, – we can never be 100% certain about the future – though context may give a good idea of our feeling.

In [3.7], about a present-time hypothetical situation, our knowledge that ‘your’ father is not alive tells us that the situation is unreal.

So, if we are talking about future hypothetical situations, we often have free choice about the form we use. These forms depend on how we think of the situation. Here are three more example to illustrate this:

3.8. When my husband retires next year, we will move to Scotland to be closer to my grandchildren.

3.9. If my husband retires next year, we will move to Scotland to be closer to my grandchildren.

3.10. If my husband retired next year, we would move to Scotland to be closer to my grandchildren.

[3.8] is not presented as a condition. The use of when, indicating the time (not the possibility) of this future occurrence, shows that the speaker sees this situation as certain. (The fact that it is not certain – her husband may die before this happens – is irrelevant. She thinks of it it as certain.)

The use of if in [3.9] indicates that she sees the situation as possible. The fact that she does not use remote tenses indicates that she sees the possibility as real.

The use of remote tenses with if in [3.10] indicates that she sees the situation as less real. We cannot know exactly how improbable she considers it.

4. How we use tenses in conditional sentences, past time.

We have seen that we cannot know for certain that a future hypothetical situation is unreal, though we may personally believe the possibility to be infinitesimal. We can, however, know that a present hypothetical situation is unreal (counterfactual) as we saw with [3.7].

When we are talking about hypothetical situations in the past, we know they are unreal, because, as they are located in the past, we know that they did not occur.  We therefore use the past perfect in the if– clause to mark double remoteness, in time and in reality.We use a modal perfect form in the main clause, the remote-past form of the modal to indicate remoteness in reality and the perfect infinitive of the full verb to indicate remoteness in time.

Here are some examples:

4.1 If Peter had worked harder, he would have got that promotion last year.

4.2. If Peter had worked harder, he would be a principal by now.

4.3. If Peter had worked harder, he would have the chance of promotion soon.

The past perfect in the if-  clause in all three sentences tells us that this is an unreal, counterfactual past-time situation. Peter did not work harder.

The modal perfect in the main clause of [4.1] tells us that this part is also a past-time unreal situation. Peter did not get that promotion

The remote-past form would in the main clause of [4.2], in combination with the word now, tells us that this is an unreal, counterfactual, present-time situation. Peter is not a principal.

The remote-past form would in the main clause of [4.3], in combination with the word soon, tells us that this is an improbable future-time situation. The speaker thinks it unlikely that Peter will have the chance of promotion.

5. Don’t worry about labelling your conditional sentences.

A lot of learners worry about fitting conditional sentences into first, second, third, mixed or zero conditional patterns, and worry when they see or hear sentences that appear to break the rules. Relax! Many correct and natural conditional sentences do not fit into those patterns.

What you have read here is  the heart of the system. If you master what you have read, you will understand nearly every conditional sentence using if that you ever hear or read, and produce correct and natural conditional sentences nearly every time.

We have looked only at the modals will and would. We can use other modals, but we’ll look at those in another set of tips. There are a few advanced points and alternative structures  that we haven’t looked at, but you don’t need to worry about them. Many native speakers don’t use them and some don’t even know about them!


Written by Jed Webb
In his fifty-year career, Jed has taught English in China, the Czech Republic, England, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Lebanon, Oman and Turkey; contributed to several course books; and been a teacher-trainer, a Cambridge examiner (and a driving instructor!). Now semi-retired, he enjoys responding to questions in English Forward. Profile