English Lessons

Conditionals in English

What Is a Conditional?

A conditional sentence, also called a conditional, expresses a condition and comprises at least one dependent and one independent clause. A clause, if you don’t already know, is that part of a sentence that contains at least one subject and one verb. While an independent clause can stand alone as a sentence, a dependent clause cannot, and hence, always needs another clause to complete its meaning. A conditional sentence can express either a hypothetical/imaginary situation or a real one. Study the following sentences. Also, note that in each of the example sentences given in this lesson, the dependent clause (also called the conditional clause) is italicised and the verbs are in bold letters.

  1. If I had money, I would buy a house.
  2. If he had come here on Monday, I could have discussed the matter.
  3. They might have arrived earlier if they had caught the nine o’clock train.
  4. Ice turns into water when you heat it.
  5. You are free to go if you have completed your assignment.

The first sentence expresses a hypothetical situation. The second and third, however, talk about an imaginary outcome. The fourth one talks about a universal truth, and the fifth one is a command where one action can happen only if the other is complete. Please note that while it is possible for all conditional sentences to have the subordinating conjunction ‘if’, in some cases, it is possible to use ‘when’. But if you are not sure, you can always use ‘if’ (That’s another conditional right there!). You may, nonetheless, also encounter conditional sentences that do not contain any conjunction. As far as the order of the clauses is concerned, you have a choice to place either the dependent clause (beginning with ‘if’ or ‘when’) first or the independent clause. If you place the dependent clause first, you have to use a comma after it. Also, keep in mind that most of the conditional sentences contain a modal verb. As you will have noted, the first, second and third example sentences contain the modal verbs ‘would’, ‘could’ and ‘might’ respectively. We shall discuss the main conditional sentences in detail here and the other ones in one of our upcoming lessons. We also suggest you first understand the concept of Subject-Verb Agreement by clicking here so that you may understand what is explained in this lesson well.

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Why are Conditionals Important?

Conditionals allow you to express a wide range of scenarios. You can talk about an event that is unlikely to take place with the help of a conditional. Similarly, you can use conditionals to talk about purely imagined scenarios or hypothetical situations. You can also use conditionals to talk about something likely to happen in the future. Hypothetical outcomes that have got to do with the past are also expressed using conditional sentences. In short, they help you articulate your thoughts in the best possible manner, and that’s why they are considered significant.

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The Four Main Types of Conditionals

While there are different types of conditional sentences in English, four amongst those are dominant. Therefore, they form an integral part of English grammar. The four main types of conditional sentences are the zero conditional, the first conditional, the second conditional, and the third conditional.

The Zero Conditional

The zero conditional often states a fact or a universal truth. You can also use this conditional when some action happens/happened as a result of the other. Study the example sentences given below.

  1. My father scolded me when/if I misbehaved.* (The action of scolding happened as a result of the speaker misbehaving.)
  2. He drinks water when/if he gets tired. (Fact)
  3. When/if you boil water, it evaporates. (Universal truth)
  4. When/if it rained heavily in my town, the rivers overflowed.* (The action of overflowing happened as a result of heavy rains.)
  5. I take a break from work if/when I feel exhausted. (Fact)

While referring to a universal truth, both the dependent and independent clauses are in the simple present tense. And while talking about a past action, both the clauses are in the simple past tense. In the zero conditional, you have an option to use the conjunction ‘when’ instead of ‘if’. DO NOT USE ANY MODAL VERB IN A ZERO CONDITIONAL.

*It is possible to use the ‘would + verb’s first form’ in the independent clauses of these sentences.

The First Conditional

The first conditional expresses an action that is likely or unlikely to happen in the future, assuming the given condition gets fulfilled. Consider the following sentences:

  1. My father will scold me if I go home late. (The action of scolding is sure to happen if the condition gets fulfilled.)
  2. He won’t drink water if he gets tired. He will drink apple juice. (The action of drinking juice is sure to take place if the condition gets fulfilled.)
  3. They may/might tell you the truth if you stop giving them pocket money. (The modal verb ‘may’ or ‘might’ indicates that the action of telling the truth is likely to happen if the condition gets fulfilled.)
  4. If we win this lottery, we could/can buy an apartment in North Avenue. (We have a lottery ticket, and if the condition gets fulfilled, we will be capable enough to buy the apartment.)
  5. If your boss doesn’t value your presence in tomorrow’s meeting, you should consider putting in your papers. (The modal verb ‘should’ expresses the speaker’s opinion and is hence a suggestion.)

In the first conditional, the conditional clause must not contain a modal verb; however, the result clause needs to have the modal verb ‘will’, ‘may’, can’, ‘shall’, ‘might’ ‘could’, or ‘should’. If you are sure about the action’s happening, use ‘will’. If you think there exists a probability, use ‘may’ or ‘might’. And if you think one is capable of doing an action, assuming the condition gets fulfilled, you can use ‘can’ or ‘could’. While giving a suggestion, use ‘should’. DO NOT USE A MODAL VERB IN THE DEPENDENT CLAUSE. For example, don’t say: My father will scold me if I will go home late. A dependent clause in the first conditional is always constructed in the Simple Present Tense.

The Second Conditional

You can use the second conditional to talk about future hypotheticals or imaginary situations. Note that although there exists a condition in this conditional, the condition itself is imaginary, and hence, the result is imaginary too. Study the following sentences carefully:

  1. If I became the Prime Minister next year, I would help the poor. (It is impossible for me to become the Prime Minister. I am not even a politician.)
  2. If he turned into an aeroplane, he might come here in a minute.
  3. I could help you if I had money. (I don’t have money now.)
  4. If I were a bird, I would travel right across the globe.
  5. If this table had a mouth, it would cry.

As you can see, these sentences talk about imaginary actions. Please remember that we use ‘were’ and not ‘was’ with all the pronouns in the dependent clause of the second conditional. Also, the dependent clause must be in the past tense and not any other tense. For example, don’t say, ‘If I become the Prime Minister next year, I would help the poor.’ And, NEVER USE A MODAL VERB IN THE DEPENDENT CLAUSE.

The Third Conditional

Use the third conditional to talk about hypothetical outcomes. They deal with events that are already over. Consider the following sentences:

  1. The teacher would have helped you if you had spoken to her politely. (But you did not speak to her politely, so she didn’t help you.)
  2. If I had known the truth, I wouldn’t have attended the wedding. (But I did not know the truth, so I attended the wedding.)
  3. If you had called her on Sunday, she might have heard you out. (But you did not call her on Sunday.)
  4. They could have performed better if the coach had trained them well. (But the coach did not train them well.)
  5. The train would have not met with such a horrible accident if the railway authorities had been careful. (But the railway authorities were not careful.)

All of these sentences deal with an action that is over. They only talk about hypothetical outcomes. Hence, you cannot do anything about them now. Please remember that the independent clause in the third conditional must be in the past perfect tense, and the dependent clause must contain the modal verb ‘would’, ‘might’, or ‘could’. Also, NEVER USE A MODAL VERB IN THE DEPENDENT CLAUSE. For example, don’t say, ‘If you would have called her on Sunday, she might have heard you out.

Fun Fact

Do you remember we told you it is possible to have a conditional sentence without any conjunction? Well, you can only do so in a few situations. If a sentence in the second conditional comprises the helping verb ‘were’ in the dependent clause, you can begin the clause with the verb and remove ‘if’. Also, in the third conditional, you can remove ‘if’ and begin the clause with the helping verb ‘had’. Look at the following sentences.

  1. If I were a bird, I would fly right across the globe. = Were I a bird, I would fly right across the globe.
  2. I could have gone there if I had had enough money. = I could have gone there had I had enough money.
  3. If you had conducted yourself well, the teacher would not have punished you. = Had you conducted yourself well, the teacher would not have punished you.

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Some Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Is it possible to have a conditional sentence that is interrogative or adverb interrogative?
    Answer: Yes. All you have to do is change the order or add an interrogative adverb. For example, the affirmative sentence ‘The school will reopen if the parents stop protesting’ can be made interrogative by changing the word order. One can say, ‘Will the school reopen if the parents stop protesting?’
  2. Is it possible to have a modal verb in the independent clause of a conditional sentence?
    Answer: Yes! While it is advised not to use a modal verb, it is possible to have one in some situations. Look at the following sentences:
    i. If you think this job will pay me well, I shall definitely appear for the interview.
    ii. If your parents feel you should stop talking to me, I suggest you follow what they say.
    iii. If you would be kind enough to help me with this project, I should be forever grateful to you.
    iv. If Martha should return home tonight/Should Martha return home tonight, I may have a long chat with her. (This is similar to ‘If Martha returns home tonight, I may have a long chat with her.)
    v. If you should miss the bus/Should you miss the bus, can you hail a cab? (This is similar to ‘If you miss the bus, can you hail a cab?)
  3. Are there other types of conditional sentences?
    Answer: Yes. You can use a conditional sentence to express a ‘conditional mood’, so you can have a wide variety of conditional sentences. Study the sentences given below:
    i. If you have done your homework, you can go to play.
    ii. If he is coming home by bike, ask him to get some oranges for us.
    iii. Can you tell her to call Mr Santosh now if she is planning to visit him tonight?

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