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The truth about conditionals

If. If is a long word in English. It may only have two letters, but placing those two letters in a sentence completely changes the meaning of that sentence. These kinds of sentences in English are often referred to as conditional sentences. Conditionals are used by every English speaker, and every English learner studies them at some point. Sometimes though, the rules aren’t as clear as you might think. If you’d like to learn more, then read on...

The rules

Let’s look first at the established and accepted rules.  The English Language is often said to have three types of conditional sentence: the first conditionalthe second conditional and the third conditional.  How familiar are you with these terms?  The forms below may seem familiar:

1. First Conditional (If + Present Simple..., ... will + verb)

The First Conditional is used to talk about events that may possibly happen in the future.

Example: If the weather is nice, I’ll go for a walk.

2. Second Conditional (If + Past Simple ..., ... would + verb)

The Second Conditional is used to talk about what you would generally do in imaginary situations.

Example: If they worked harder, they would earn more money.

3. Third Conditional (If + Past Perfect …, … would have + past participle)

The third conditional is used when we are talking about the past and imagining something different from what actually happened.

Example: If I had known, I would have helped.

So, three types of conditionals and three very clear uses.

The truth

Although it is undoubtedly useful to learn about these structures, the reality is that there are more than just three conditional structures.  Many more.  It’s almost impossible to say how many different forms we have.  Look at these examples below.  What type of conditionals do you think they are?

1. If I went to Egypt, I could learn Arabic.

2. If she had had time, she might have gone to the party.

3. Whenever that happens, you must tell me immediately.

4. When you plant them in rows, they grow better.

5. If he never returns, I would not be greatly surprised.

6. If she had been born in the United States, she wouldn't need a visa to work here.

7. If the sun were shining, I would go to the beach.

8. If I went to a friend's house for dinner in Japan, I usually took a bottle of wine or some flowers.

9. When I was homeless I’d get up about 10 or 11.  If I had no money I’d go shopliffting.

10. It’ll be a miracle if I make it (to the White House) but God is still in the miracle business.

Some of them look familiar.  For example, number 1, 2 and 3 simply replace would/will with another modal verb.  Do you notice any change in the meaning?  Number 3 also uses whenever instead of if to mean every time.  Number 4 is often called the zero conditional, and is used for things that are usually true all the time. 

Number 5 and 6 are interesting in that the speaker mixes conditional structures (the first and second and the second and third respectively).  This is very common, and it’s often best to focus on the overall meaning of the sentence. Number 7 uses a continuous tense in the first clause instead of a simple tense.  Why do you think they do this?

Number 8 and 9 talk about past habits.  Number 10 is very common in English as we often add a condition to the end of the conditional sentence.  In this case, the use of but suggests that the “miracle” may still happen. 

As you can see, conditionals aren’t as straightforward as you may first think.  Sometimes it’s better to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What time does the conditional refer to?
  • Does the conditional refer to a real or an unreal event?

As always, be aware that there will be exceptions with every part of English grammar. And remember, if there's any grammar you would like us to talk about here on the blog, let us know.

Thanks for reading.

By Andy


shoplifting - (n) the act of stealing something from a shop 

respectively - (adv.) in the same order as two things previously mentioned 

straightforward - (adv.) simple, easy to understand 

exceptions - (pl.n.) things that do not agree or conform to the general rule 

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