Thinking about how to express what might happen, or what could have happened?
To do this in English, we need to use the conditional tense. You can use the conditional tense in a number of ways to express a variety of things – read on to find out how!
Using the Zero Conditional
The zero conditional might sound quite intimidating, but it’s actually quite a commonly used form of the conditional tense. You would use this whenever you are describing or expressing something that is a general truth, such as a fact that you know is true.
“If you freeze water, it turns into ice.”
In the zero conditional form, you must always use the simple present tense. Your statement is also made up of two parts – an “if” clause that describes the condition, and the main clause, that describes the fact or result. The two clauses don’t have to be in any fixed order – you can have either of them at the start or finish.
“Water boils if it is heated to 100 degrees.”
The first conditional is used to describe something that will probably happen – if you do something. This means it requires an initial “if” clause to describe the condition that needs to take place, and is followed by main clause that tells you what will likely happen.
You can use the first conditional to describe something that is realistically likely to take place.
“If you miss the bus, you will be late for work.”
An important thing to remember is that the first conditional uses the simple future tense to describe what will happen.
The second conditional is used to describe something that isn’t likely to take place, and describes a situation that is different from reality.
“If I were still young and single, I would drop everything to travel the world.”
To use the second conditional, the first “if” clause uses the simple past tense, and the main clause use the present conditional.
What if you want to describe something that you wished had, or hadn’t happened in the past?
To do this, you can use the third conditional. This form of the conditional describes something that didn’t take place, but could have given the right conditions.
“If she had studied more often, she would have passed her exams.”
As with all other conditionals, you must use an “if” clause and a main clause. The “if” clause in the third conditional must use the past perfect tense, and the main clause will use the perfect conditional or perfect continuous conditional tense.
The conditional form is a really useful way of being creative with your language and making your use of English more varied and interesting. Try practicing each of the different forms – write a sentence in each one to see how you can express something in a different way!