The "If" Battle: Conditional Sentences in English
Where there’s a will, there’s a way… they say. But, as an English teacher who’s probably heard every single worry, excuse, and challenge that a student can have, I always say “where there’s an “if”, there’s dismay”. For more reasons than one (and we’ll count them up in a second), conditional sentences seem to be this everlasting battle that almost every English learner has to partake in at some point during their language learning journey.
However, the conditionals are one of the most important things to master when learning English. In my opinion, correct usage and mastery of conditionals are every English speaker’s superpower. To your advantage, no fancy potions or spider bites are needed–just this article right here. So, make sure to read until the end if you really want to claim this superpower.
Connecting the right pieces
If I could give you the exact number of reasons why conditionals are so hard for most learners, my answer would be “six”. Yes, that many–there are six different types of conditional sentences in English. Phew! But, before we get down to breaking each conditional type down one-by-one, we have to look at the way they’re formed.
Naturally, a “conditional” sentence has to have a “condition” and the resulting action it refers to. So, there are two parts of a conditional sentence in English, the condition part (or the “if” clause) and the resulting action part (or the main clause). To differentiate between the two clauses in a single sentence, we use the comma as a separator. Here’s an example:
If you go out with me, I will buy you flowers.
In the sentence above, “If you go out with me” is the “if” clause which contains the condition, and “I will you buy you flowers” is the main clause which shows the resulting action of that condition.
There is one case that allows us to not use the comma when separating the “if” and the main clause. That is when the main clause comes before the “if” clause, contrary to the example above. Let’s take a look:
I will buy you flowers if you go out with me.
The sentence still has the exact same meaning, just with a different clause order.
So, the first thing to remember about conditional sentences is that they have two parts, the “if” and the main clause, and they’re separated by a comma.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get this language “fight” over for good!
Zero Conditional Sentences
Yes, the first one starts with a “zero”. Although the name of this conditional type might be confusing, it actually makes perfect sense. In language, “zero” refers to a state of non-action or a situation that is constant and isn’t changing regardless of the time it happens in, which is exactly what the zero conditional describes. In other words….
The zero conditional is used to talk about facts and general truths (such as scientific facts).
If you heat water, it boils.
The grass gets wet if/when it rains.
If you mix red and yellow, you get orange.
Simple Present (“if” clause), Simple Present (main clause)
First Conditional Sentences
This is by far the most basic example of a conditional sentence, which ties in the present with the future. I’m certain that all of us have said a sentence in the first conditional at some point in our lives. You know those “if you do this, I’ll do that” or similar when you’re fighting with someone? That’s the first conditional.
In English, we use the first conditional to talk about real events in the present and their results in the future.
If I prepare everything now, I’ll have more time to sleep in the morning.
I’ll be extremely sad if they lose this match.
Simple Present (“if” clause), will + main verb (main clause)
Second Conditional Sentences
By talking about the second conditional, we slowly move away from real and factual events to unreal ones. It’s where our imagination kicks in. In other words…
The second conditional is used to talk about unreal/imaginary events in the present with results in either the present or future.
If I had more money, I would buy my momma a house.
Baby, I would die if anything ever happened to you.
Simple Past (“if” clause), would + main verb (main clause)
Third Conditional Sentences
The easiest way to explain the third conditional is that it’s what you’ll get if you simply put the events from the second conditional in the past. Everything that happens in the third conditional is set in the past, both the condition and its result.
In short, the third conditional is used to talk about unreal/imaginary events in the past with results in the past.
If you had asked me to marry you any earlier, I would’ve said “yes” even then.
Mary would have gotten an A on her last exam if she had studied a bit more.
Past Perfect (“if” clause), would have + past participle of the main verb (main clause)
Mixed Conditionals (Yes, they exist too!)
This is where it gets interesting. If four conditionals weren’t enough for you, how about another two?
In English, there are two types of mixed conditional sentences. Essentially, what they are is just a mixture of the opposite halves of the second and third conditional. As such, they’re used to talk about both the present and the past. Let’s take a look.
Mixed Conditional I. It is used to talk about unreal/imaginary events in the present with results in the past.
If the firm didn’t trust you, you would’ve been fired months ago.
I would’ve saved her if I wasn’t afraid of heights.
Simple Past (“if” clause), would have + past participle of the main verb (main clause)
Mixed Conditional II. It is used to talk about unreal/imaginary events in the past with results in the present.
Ready to Become the Master of Conditionals?
Do you still want to claim your superpower? Well, here’s your first shot, as mastering all the forms, rules, and notes above just once is really all that it takes. Once mastered, your English proficiency is undoubtedly going to reach a whole new level.
If you wish to put everything you learned today into practice, check out LingQ’s English lessons and learn your English the right way!
Hope you find today’s article valuable on your language learning journey! Until next time, tread carefully around every “if” and make sure the very first sentence you read here today is the one you follow in your every day as an English speaker. If you also need a few new pieces of English content, check out these podcasts.
Jasmin Alić is an award-winning EFL/ESL teacher and writing aficionado from Bosnia and Herzegovina with years of experience in multicultural learning environments.