In his article we will look at conditional sentences. We use them in situations (sentences) when we want to say that something will happen if something else happens or what it would be if… In such sentences we always use a condition in a subordinate clause to relate to an event happening in the main clause. For example:
- If I finish earlier, I will go shopping.
- The subordinate clause (If I finish earlier) contains the condition whose fulfilment is necessary for the achievement of the event in the main clause (I will go shopping). If the conditions are not fulfilled, the event in the main clause will not happen. = I will stay at work and I will not be able to go shopping.
Although conditional sentences (so called conditionals) can initially seem rather terrifying, there is no reason to panic. The conditionals are ranked logically. They are graded from zero to three depending on the degree of probability that the event that depends on the condition in the conditional cause will occur. The higher the number, the smaller the probability. This means that, for example, in a Zero Conditional, the event happens when a given condition is fulfilled. The other extreme is the Third Conditional, in which the event never happens, because the condition can no longer be fulfilled. This will be explained in detail as we look at the different types of conditional sentences.
2 Types of Conditionals
Now let’s look more closely at the different types of conditionals. We’ll consider when to use them, what is typical for them, etc.
2.1 The Zero Conditional
We form the Zero Conditional by using the present tense in the subordinate clause. The same goes for the main sentence. Both sentences are joined by the conjunction if:
- IF – present tense (subordinate clause), – present tense (main clause).
- If you heat snow, it melts.
- Instead of the conjunction if you can use the conjunction when – Snow melts when you heat it.
We use the Zero Conditional for so-called general truths i.e.. situations which always happen when the condition is fulfilled.
- Water freezes when the temperature is below 0 °C.
- In this example we see that if the condition (the temperature is below 0°C) is fulfilled, the situation in the main clause will happen (water freezes).
- The Zero Conditional also means that if the condition occurs, the situation in the main clause always happens i.e. every-time the temperature is below 0°C water freezes.
- If it rains, the ground gets wet.
- Again, we can see that any time the condition occurs (it rains), the situation in the main clause also happens (the ground becomes wet).
Another use of the Zero Conditional
As we said before we use the Zero Conditional for so-called general truths. However, we can also use it for giving instructions or making requests:
- If you meet Ann, give her this box.
- In this case we use imperative (give) in the main clause.
2.2 The First Conditional
We create the First Conditional by using the present tense in the subordinate clause and future time in the main clause. Again, both sentences are joined by the conjunction if:
- IF – present time (subordinate clause), – future time (main clause).
- If I miss the train, my mom will be angry.
The events in the First Conditional take place in the future. It means that they are likely to happen, however only if their condition is fulfilled (in the subordinate clause). Take a look at the following examples:
- If I score a goal tomorrow, my dad will be really happy.
- From the sentence it is clear that if the condition is fulfilled (I score a goal tomorrow), the situation in the subordinate clause will also happen (my dad will be really happy). However, it is not quite certain because we do not know if the speaker will actually score a goal.
- I will visit Jacob if I have time.
- It is possible that the speaker will visit Jacob, but we do not know if it will happens.
- Watch out for this common mistake! In Czech we have future tenses in both sentences that is why we have a tendency to use it in English when in fact we must use the Present tense!
I will buy the car if I will have enough money.but:
- I will buy the car if I have enough money.
Another use of the First Conditional
In the First conditional we can also use modal verbs instead of a future tense. We can express for example permission, assurance and recommendation:
- You may go outside if you do your homework.
- It is possible we will be allowed to go out if the condition (completed homework) occurs. (But it is not known if we will do our homework).
- If Tom doesn’t arrive on time, you should call him.
- Here the speaker tells us what we should do if the given condition does not occur (Tom doesn’t arrive on time).
In the subordinate clause – conditionals – we can also use the word should, for example:
- If you should come across a good deal, contact me.
This kind of conditional sentence allows us to use so called inversion. We will look at this later on.
2.3 The Second Conditional
For the Second Conditional we use the past tense in the subordinate clause and the conditional tense in the main clause – it is enough to know the word WOULD:
- IF – past tense (the subordinate clause), – conditional clause = would (the main clause).
- If I was rich, I would move to London.
The Second Conditional expresses events that take place in the present or in the future. These are hypothetical situations. In other words, we are thinking about what would be now, if.. or what might be in the future, if.. Because these are hypothetical situations, it is not likely that the condition will be met, but it is not completely unrealistic. Let’s look at some examples:
- I would buy myself a Ferrari if I was a millionaire.
- Unfortunately, the speaker is not a millionaire, so he only thinks about what he would do if the condition happened and he becamese a millionaire. It is unlikely that the situation will occur although it might do.
- If she wasn‘t so busy, she would attend the meeting next week.
- The person we’re talking about is busy and that’s why it is a hypothetical situation. It is possible that she will be able to free up her diary and come to the meeting but not very likely.
- In the Second Conditional we can use If I were.. respectively If he/she/it were.. in the first and third person instead of If I was.. and He/she/it was… This change is grammatically correct and very often used. It doesn’t change the meaning:
- If I was you, I would help him.
- If I were you, I would help him.
Another type is using the pattern were to + infinitive in the subordinate clause instead of past tense:
- If we won the match, we would be extremely happy.
- If we were to win the match, we would be exteremely happy.
Using the word were (same as should in the First Conditional) requires us to use the so called inversion. We will discuss this in more detail at the end of this article.
2.4 The Third Conditional
In the Third Conditional we use the past perfect tense in the subordinate clause and the past conditional tense in the main clause – again it is enough to know two words – would have:
- IF – the past prefect tense (the subordinate clause), – the past conditional tense = would have (the main clause)
- If I had stopped him, none of this would have happened.
In the Third Conditional here is also the possibility of so-called inversion. What is it and what it looks like find further on in this article.
The Third Conditional always takes place in the past. It describes events in which the condition can no longer be fulfilled, because the event in the past has ended and the past cannot be changed. You can only think about what would have been if…:
- If I hadn’t lost the keys, we wouldn’t have had to sleep outside.
- As the example suggests, the speaker has lost the keys and that is why during the night spent outside he could think about what would have been if he hadn’t lost his keys.
- She would have finished first if she hadn’t stumbled just before the end.
- The runneracer did stumbled and the position she might have finished in if she hadn’t stumbled is anyone’s guess.
2.5 Comparison of the Second and the Third Conditional
Now let’s compare the Second Conditional and the Third Conditional. They both express a hypothetical situation but it is important to understand the difference that in the Second Conditional the possibility of fulfilling a given condition is very unlikely, but not unrealistic. However, in the Third Conditional, this condition is unrealistic – it cannot be fulfilled:
- The Second Conditional:
- If I had more money, I would buy that car.
- The speaker is not rich which is why he won’t buy it. And the probability that he will suddenly become rich and buy the car is quite low.
- The Third Conditional:
- If I had had more money, I would have bought that car.
- The speaker did not have more money and that is why he did not buy that car. Now it is sold and the condition cannot be fulfilled. The key point is we are talking about a past event and the past, sadly, cannot be changed.
3 Mixed Conditionals
Having gone through all the basic types of conditionals, it should also be noted that there are also mixed conditionals in English. Such conditionals consist of a combination of the Second and Third conditional, which we will now briefly revisit:
- The Second Conditional:
- If I had a friend, I would feel happy.
- If I had a friend (now), I would feel happy (now). As you can see, both the condition and a result of the Second Conditional are in present.
- The Third Conditional:
- If I had had a friend, I would have felt happier.
- If I had had a friend (then), I would have felt happier (then). – In the Third Conditional, both the condition and the result are in past.
Now we can look at the combinations of these conditionals. Don’t worry, we have only two versions:
Condition in the present -> result in the past
In this case we have a condition which is now (was/is/will) valid but influenced by something in the past. Let’s look at an example:
- If I listened to rock music, I would have gone to that concert.
- If I listened to rock music (now – but I didn’t like it, I don’t and I will never like it), I would have gone to that concert (when it was held – but because they played rock, I didn’t go.)
- If she trusted him, she would have lent him the car.
- If she trusted him (now – but she doesn’t, didn’t and won’t trust him), she would have lent him the car (then – when he wanted it.)
Condition in the past -> result in the present
This combination means that the condition which was/wasn’t fulfilled in the past now influences the present.
- If I had paid attention, I wouldn’t be in the middle of nowhere now.
- If I had paid attention (then – when it was necessary to pay attention), I wouldn’t be in the middle of nowhere now (now – at this moment.)
- If I hadn’t drunk so much last night, I wouldn’t be hungover.
- If I hadn’t drunk so much last night (then – in the past), I wouldn’t be hung over (now – in this moment.)
Time shift in the Conditional Sentences
The following trick can be used to better remember and master conditional sentences. The larger the number in the conditional title (first, second, third), the further into the past is the conditional sentence. Let’s look at the following sentence:
- The First Conditional – the conditional sentence contains the Present tense:
- I will help you if I have time.
- The Second Conditional – the conditional sentence contains the Past tense:
- I would help you if I had time.
- The Third Conditional – the conditional sentence contains the Perfet tense:
- I would have helped you if I had had time.
4 Sentence order
It should also be noted that, as with the other sub-clauses, it is necessary to keep in mind the use of commas. Therefore, if the condition clause is the first clause in the sentence, we put a comma after it. If it is in second place in the sentence, we do not put a comma:
- If you loved me, you wouldn’t have let me go.
- You wouldn’t have let me go if you loved me.
Inversion is not complicated. It just means that, we can move the predicate before the subject. This is very common in English. We already , find it in the creation of questions: I can. –> Can I?
But in the case of conditional sentences, more advanced students will use it. It must also be said that inversion is used primarily in the written form and in very formal texts. Inversion in the condition sentences can take three forms:
Inversion with SHOULD
As you could see in the First Conditional, sometimes the word ‘should’ appears in the conditional sentence, so that the fulfilment of the condition takes on a little probability. In this case, we use the inversion:
- If you should run into any problems, do not hesitate to contact us.
- Should you run into any problems, do not hesitate to contact us.
Of course, the conditional sentence can still be in second place in the sentence. Remember not to use a comma in this case:
- Do not hesitate to contact us should you run into any problems.
Inversion with WERE
As with the word should in the First Conditional, we can use the inversion in the Second Conditional, this time with the word were:
- If I were the president, I would try to bring peace to our country.
- Were I the president, I would try to bring peace to our country.
- If I were to pass the exam, I would go out and celebrate.
- Were I to pass the exam, I would go out and celebrate.
Of course, the conditional clause can still be in second place in the sentence. Remember you don’t use a comma in this case:
- I would try to bring peace to our country were I the president.
Inversion with HAD
Unlike the previous two cases, the Third Conditional does not need special treatment. Simply move the verb HAD to before the subject:
- If I had come on time, I could have seen Rachel.
- Had I come on time, I could have seen Rachel.
Of course, the conditional clause can still be in second place in the sentence. Remember to skip writing a comma in this case:
- I could have seen Rachel had I come on time.
Inversion and negation
If the words we put before the subject are in the negative, it is necessary to separate them from the negation and leave the negation NOT behind the subject:
- Call me right away if you shouldn’t receive the email.
- Call me right away should you not receive the email.
- I would come to your party if I weren‘t so busy.
- I would come to your party were I not so busy.
- I would have managed to get there if I hadn’t missed the train.
- I would have managed to get there had I not missed the train