garfield_second_conditional

Grammar: Conditionals Explained In Depth

if_greenA conditional is made up of two parts: the “if-clause” and the “main clause”. We can put either one first and it doesn’t change the meaning. We usually use a comma when we put the “if-clause” first.

 

In the example below, ‘if it rains’ is the if-clause and ‘we’ll go to the cinema’ is the main clause.

  • If it rains, we’ll go to the cinema.
  • We’ll go to the cinema if it rains.

Although in grammar books we often learn about the zero, first, second and third conditionals, there are also other ways to use conditionals.


Real Conditionals

Real conditionals talk about things that are either true, or likely to be true. Grammar books often talk about how we use them to talk about general truths (the zero conditional) and to talk about the future (the first conditional), but we can also use them in other ways. The tenses in real conditionals follow the normal rules for tense and modal use.

Present real conditionals: General truths

We use present real conditionals to talk about general truths (this is the classic zero conditional). The result (in the main clause) always happens if the condition (in the if-clause) happens. This kind of conditional is common when we’re talking about scientific or mathematical facts. We often use the present simple in both clauses. This makes sense as we usually use the present simple to talk about things that are generally true.

  • If you mix oil with water, it floats.
  • If you add two and two, you get four.

 

Present real conditionals: Habits in the present or general habits.

We also often use the present simple in both clauses when we’re talking about habits. Whenever the thing in the if-clause happens, then the thing in the main clause follows. Again, it makes sense to use the present simple, as we often use it for present habits.

  • If my husband cooks dinner, I clean up.
  • If John goes to London, he visits his sister.

This means that every time my husband cooks dinner, I clean up. And it means that every time John goes to London, he visits his sister.

Using other verb tenses for general truths and habits.

It’s also possible to use other present tenses in both clauses (the present continuous / present perfect / present perfect continuous). We don’t need to use the same tense in both clauses. This is most common with habits.

  • If I’m travelling, I phone my children every day.
  • If she hasn’t had her coffee, she’s grumpy.

But we can also use different present tenses if we’re talking about general truths (though it’s more common to use the present simple in both clauses.)

  • If this paint has dried properly, it is waterproof.

We can also use modal verbs in either clause, especially can and may.

  • If I move around, I can concentrate better.

If we want to tell people how they should behave or give general advice, we can use an imperative in the main clause.

  • If you discover a fire, call the fire brigade immediately.
  • If you have a headache, take some paracetamol.

Present real conditionals for specific situations

We can also use a real conditional to talk about something specific in the present, not something that’s a general truth or a habit, and a result that is in the future or present. It’s common to use a modal verb in the main clause.

  • If it’s raining outside now, we can call a cab. (I don’t know if it’s raining.)
  • If John and Amanda are on their way here now, you should start making dinner.

We can use will + infinitive or will + be + verb-ing in the main clause when we’re making a guess about the present. This use of will isn’t talking about the future, rather it’s using will to make a guess about the present.

  • If Lucy’s at home, she’ll be reading.

Past real conditionals for past habits and past general situations

We can also talk use conditionals to talk about habits and things that used to be true in the past but that are no longer true now. Usually we use two past simple tenses.

  • If we didn’t want to cook, we went to a restaurant. (Now we don’t do that.)
  • If there was too much rain, the roads flooded and we didn’t go to school.

We can also use the past continuous (to show that something started before and finished after another action in the past) and the past perfect (to show that one thing happened before another thing in the past).

  • If my father was reading, we weren’t allowed to disturb him.
  • If I had worked late, I still got up for my early lecture.

We can also use used to and would for past habits with the past real conditional.

  • If I had free time, I used to go snowboarding.
  • If I had free time, I would read a novel in a little café near my house.

We can use past modals in either clause.

  • If I could, I went snowboarding.
  • If I had free time, I could go snowboarding.

Past real conditionals for specific situations

We can also use a real conditional to talk about something specific in the past, which has a result in the past. We usually don’t know if the event in the if-clause happened or not.

  • If the storm hit Florida, it caused a lot of damage. (I don’t know if the storm hit Florida, but if it did, it definitely caused damage.)

It’s very common to use modal verb + have + past participle in the main clause. This makes the result in the main clause less certain.

  • If she left early, she will have gone home.
  • If she left early, she could have gone home.
  • If she left early, she might have gone home.
  • If she left early, she must have gone home.
  • If she left early, she can’t have gone home.

Real conditionals in the future

When we talk about the future, we use real conditionals to say that we think the condition is possible or likely.

Usually, we use if + present simple, will + infinitive. This is the classic first conditional.

Remember that in this case, even though we use the present tense, it has a future meaning. (This is similar to using the present to talk about the future in other subordinate clauses in English, like after when or as soon as. See my present simple page for more information.)

  • If it rains, I’ll stay at home. (This means that I think it’s possible or likely that it will rain, and if it rains, then I will definitely stay at home.)

We can also use other present tenses in the if-clause.

  • If it’s raining at 10am, I’ll stay at home.

We use the present continuous because in this conditional, we imagine that the rain started before 10am and will finish after 10am. At 10am, the action of raining will be happening. Even though we’re using the present continuous, we’re still talking about future rain. We can use be going to in the main clause. This gives a feeling of ‘we intend to stay at home’.

  • If it rains, I’m going to stay at home.

We can use an imperative in the main clause.

  • If it rains, take your umbrella!
  • If it rains, don’t forget to close the windows.

We can use modal verbs in the main clause. If I think that the condition is probably going to happen but I’m not certain that the result will happen even if the condition does, then I can use a different modal in the main clause. We don’t use would in this case.

  • If it rains, we might stay at home.
  • If it rains, we may stay at home.
  • If it rains, we can stay at home.
  • If it rains, we should stay at home.
  • If it rains, we could stay at home.
  • If it rains, we must stay at home.

We can use can, may and must with their usual meanings in the if-clause.

  • If I must, I’ll come at 10am.
  • If I can, I’ll come at 10am.
  • If I may, I’ll come at 10am. (= If I’m allowed, I’ll come at 10am.)

We can make the condition less certain by using should or happen to or both in the if-clause. Should is extremely formal and sounds old-fashioned now. These examples mean that I am not very sure that it will rain.

  • If it should rain, I’ll stay at home.
  • If it happens to rain, I’ll stay at home.
  • If it should happen to rain, I’ll stay at home.

We can make a first conditional very formal by dropping if and using should with inversion.

  • Should it rain, I will stay at home.

We can use will or won’t in the if-clause when we’re using them with their modal meanings of willingness / refusal / insistence. Otherwise, we don’t use a future tense in the if-clause.

  • If he won’t help, I won’t either. (= If he refuses to help.)
  • If you’ll arrive early, I’ll be very grateful. (= If you’re willing to come early.)
  • If you will smoke so much, of course you’ll get a sore throat. (= If you insist on smoking so much.)

We can use will have + past participle (the future perfect) in the main clause to talk about something that will happen before another moment in the future.

  • If we don’t hurry up, the film will have started.
  • If we miss this train, our flight will have left (when we get to the airport).

Mixed time real conditionals: Past conditionals for specific situation, with a present result

We can use a past tense or the present perfect in the if-clause to say that we’re not certain that action in the if clause happened, but if it did happen, this is the result in the present.

  • If John has seen my message, he is on his way here. (I don’t know if John has seen my message or not, but if he has, he’s on his way here now.)

It’s common to use a modal verb in the main clause, especially will + infinitive or will + be + verb-ing to make a guess about the present. (We don’t use would in this case.)

  • If Lucy went home, she’ll be there now.
  • If she caught the plane, she should be arriving now.
  • If the parcel arrived, the children will be happy.
  • If he missed the train, he could still be at the station.
  • If he didn’t call Lucy, she might not know about the meeting.

Mixed time real conditionals: Past conditionals for specific situations, with future results

We can use a past tense or the present perfect in the if-clause and will in the main clause to say that we’re not certain that action in the if-clause happened, but if it did happen, this will be the result in the future.

  • If Julie went home early, she’ll be there when the delivery arrives later.
  • If Amanda has been working today, she’ll be tired tonight.

It’s also very common to use a modal verb in the main clause.

  • If Julie went home early, she might be there later.
  • If John went to school today, he could be home at 5pm.
  • If she’s done the shopping, she can make us a lovely meal tonight.

Mixed time real conditionals: Present conditionals for specific situations, with future results

We can use a present tense in the if-clause and a future tense in the main clause if we want to say that a situation happening now will have an effect on the future.

  • If David’s studying now, he’ll go to the gym later.
  • If Lucy’s at work now, she won’t leave until at least 7pm.

We can use a modal verb in the main clause.

  • If it’s raining outside now, we might not go to the park later.

Mixed time real conditionals: Present or future for specific situations that lead to an idea about the past

It’s sometimes possible to have an if-clause referring to the present or future and a main clause referring to the past, especially with must have and can’t have for deductions

  • If she got 100% on the exam, she must have studied very hard.

Is it a zero or a first conditional?

This sometimes seems a tricky distinction, but actually the tenses in real conditionals follow the normal tense rules.

So, if you’re talking about something that’s generally true or a habit, then you need the present simple in the main clause (in the same way that you’d use the present simple for habits or general truths in a normal non conditional sentence).

And if you’re talking about something that will happen in the future, then you need a first conditional. In some situations, you can use either – they are both correct.

  • If you go out in the sun without sun cream, you get burned. (= A general truth. This happens every time you go out in the sun.)
  • If you go out in the sun without sun cream, you’ll get burned. (= A prediction about the future. I think if you go out without sun cream later today, then after that you will get burned.)

When and If

For general truths conditionals, present habit conditionals and past habit conditionals, we can replace if with when or whenever.

  • When / whenever you mix oil with water, it floats.
  • When / whenever you add two and two, you get four.
  • When / whenever my husband cooks dinner, I clean up.
  • When / whenever John goes to London, he visits his sister.
  • When / whenever we didn’t want to cook, we went to a restaurant.
  • When / whenever my father was reading, we weren’t allowed to disturb him.

For habits, if tends to mean that something doesn’t happen very often, whereas when suggests it happens regularly.

  • When I have a day off, I like to go swimming. (I often have days off.)
  • If I have a day off, I like to go swimming. (I don’t often have days off.)

This is different with future conditionals (the first conditional). With future conditionals, when and if have very different meanings.

  • If it stops raining, we’ll go out. (I don’t know if it is going to stop raining or not.)
  • When it stops raining, we’ll go out. (I’m sure that it will stop raining later.)

Unreal Conditionals

We use this kind of conditional we are talking about something that is not real, either something that is impossible or something that is imaginary or very unlikely. We move the tenses back one step (sometimes called backshifting) to show this unreality.

So, when we are talking about the present, we use the past tense or past modals, and when we are talking about the past we use past perfect or modal with have + past participle. (We also use the past tense to talk about future unreal things, which is less logical.)

The second and third conditionals are examples of unreal conditionals. We don’t use when with unreal conditionals.

Impossible things in the present

This can be one specific thing or things in general. We use the past simple in the if-clause, and would + infinitive in the main clause. This is the classic second conditional.

  • If I had enough money, I would buy a car. (But I don’t have enough money.)
  • If I knew her phone number, I would call her. (But I don’t know her phone number.)

We can use other past modals in the main clause, like should, could, might or ought to.

  • If I knew her number, I could call her.
  • If I knew her number, I might call her.

We can’t use modals that don’t have a past form, like must. Instead we use would have to.

  • If I was still at school, I would have to wear a uniform. NOT: If I was still at school, I must wear a uniform.

We can use were instead of was in the if-clause in formal English. (You should use this for exams!)

  • If he were president, he would raise taxes.
  • If it were summer, we could go to the beach.
  • If she were a student, she would live at the university.

However, it’s very common to use was. The only place that we see were in everyday speech is in the fixed expression “if I were you“.

  • If I were you, I wouldn’t eat all that chocolate.

When the verb in the if-clause is be, we can use were instead of was and drop if and invert were and the subject. This is very formal.

  • Were I rich, I wouldn’t do this job.
  • Were you the president, would you raise taxes?

Unlikely or impossible things in the future.

This is another use of the classic second conditional. The choice between the first conditional and the future use of the second conditional is often about how certain the speaker feels. Again, we use if + past simple, would + infinitive.

  • If I had enough time next week, I would come and see you. (But I won’t have enough time.)
  • If she passed the exam, she could become a doctor. (But I don’t think that she will pass.)

We can use other past modals in the same way as with impossible things in the present.

  • If I had enough time next week, I could come and see you.

We can also use were instead of was in the same way as with impossible things in the present.

  • If it were July next month (and not December), we could go camping.

In the same way that we often use the past tense when we’re making requests in order to be more polite, we also use the unreal conditional to be polite, even if the conditional is quite likely to be fulfilled.

  • If you came early and helped me get ready, it would be really helpful.

In the same way that we can use will in the if-clause of real conditionals when will has a volitional meaning rather than a future meaning, we can also use would in the if-clause of an unreal present or future conditional when ‘would’ is used with a meaning of willingness / refusal / insistence. This is common in polite requests.

  • If you would help me, I’d be very grateful. (= if you were willing to help me.)

In the same way as with real conditionals, we can use should in the if-clause. Again, this suggests that the condition is very unlikely and is formal.

  • If they should agree to come, we would be delighted.

Even more formally, we can drop if and invert should.

  • Should they agree to come, we would be delighted.

Again, we can also make the condition weaker by using happened to in the if-clause. And we can use should and happen to together.

  • If she happened to read the newspaper, she would see your article.
  • If she should happen to read the newspaper, she would see your article.

We can use the structure be to in future unreal conditionals. It is more formal, and it makes the speaker sound less certain that the usual use of the past simple. We use were for all subjects.

  • If she were to become a doctor, she would work in Canada. (I’m very uncertain that she’s going to become a doctor.)

This can be made even more formal by dropping if and inverting were.

  • Were she to become a doctor, she would work in Canada.

Other tenses with for unreal present and future conditionals

We can use the past continuous in the if-clause.

  • If it was raining at 10 o’clock, we wouldn’t go to the park.

We can use were with the past continuous, instead of was.

  • If it were raining at 10 o’clock, we wouldn’t go to the park.

We can drop if and invert were with the past continuous. This is very formal.

  • Were it raining at 10 o’clock, we wouldn’t go to the park.

We can use a modal with a continuous infinitive in the main clause. This is more common with impossible things in the present.

  • If it were raining, we wouldn’t be going to the park. (In fact, we are going to the park now.)
  • If I knew her phone number, I wouldn’t be trying to reach her by email. (In fact, I am trying to reach her by email now.)

We can use a question in the main clause.

  • If you had a lot of money, what would you spend it on?

 

Past Unreal Conditionals

This is the classic third conditional. It’s usually used to talk about imaginary things in the past – things that didn’t happen. So, it’s often used to express regret.

We use the past perfect in the if-clause (back shifted one step from the real tense, which is the past simple) and we use would + have + past participle in the main clause (backshifted one step from a past modal).

  • If I had studied harder, I would have passed the exam. (But I didn’t study hard and so I didn’t pass.)

We can use continuous forms in both or either clause.

  • If I hadn’t been working, I would have gone to the party.
  • If I hadn’t been working, I would have been dancing at midnight.
  • If I had caught the plane, I would have been lying on the beach yesterday.

We can use different modal in the main clause, usually might or could.

  • If I hadn’t been working, I could have gone to the party.
  • If I had woken up earlier, I might have caught the plane.

You can use questions in the main clause.

  • If her car hadn’t broken down, what time would she have arrived?

We can drop if and invert had to make the conditional more formal.

  • Had you got up earlier, we wouldn’t have missed the plane.

We can also use the structure be to in unreal past conditionals. It is not very common. It makes the conditional less certain and is very formal. We use were for all subjects.

  • If she were to have thought about it a bit more, she wouldn’t have done that.

This can be made even more formal by dropping if and inverting were.

  • Were she to have thought about it a bit more, she wouldn’t have done that.

Mixing unreal conditionals

We can mix the times of the two clauses. Present unreal situation, past result. We can use the past simple in the if-clause (like the second conditional) and would + have + past participle in the main clause (like the third conditional) to talk about something that’s generally true but had a result in the past.

  • If she wasn’t French, she wouldn’t have moved to Paris.
  • If he wasn’t so lazy, he wouldn’t have failed the exam.
  • If I was rich, I would have been able to buy a new car.
  • If I could speak Spanish, I would have moved to Mexico.

Past unreal situation, present result.

We can use the past perfect in the if-clause (like the third conditional) and would + infinitive in the main clause (like the second conditional) to talk about something unreal in the past that has a result in the present.

  • If I had gone to bed earlier last night, I wouldn’t be so tired now
  • If she hadn’t spent all her money, she would be rich now.

 


Content primarily-sourced from the great website: perfect-english-grammar.com

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