November 5, 2015

What If? How to Use the Conditional in English

3 minute read

We’re not always completely certain about our plans for the future, are we?

There’s always a lot of “what ifs”, “maybe’s” and “perhaps” in life!

And to express this in English, we use the conditional form – read on to find out more about the different types of this!

Zero conditional

This is a form of the conditional that actually doesn’t have any uncertainty to it – you use this when there is a condition for something, which is based on an absolute fact.

For example:

“If you don't drink enough water, you get thirsty.”

To put this together, you use the present simple tense to describe both the condition and the fact, with the word “if” at the start. You can also use “if” in between the two statements:

“Water turns into ice if you freeze it.”

First Conditional

What if you are expressing something where there is a very real possibility of it taking place?

This may be something that will probably happen in the near future – for example, if you have made some plans for later in the day, which may depend on a particular condition to happen.

Let’s take a look at an example:

“If I complete all my work today, I will go for a hike in the hills.”

The condition part of the sentence is still described using the present simple tense, but the result is expressed as something that could happen in future, by using “will” followed by the base form of the verb.

For example:

“If she passes her driving test, her father will buy her a new car.”

You can also use other words instead of “will”, including “shall”, “can” or “may”, to give slightly different meanings.

Second Conditional

Like the first conditional, you use this form when you are describing something that could happen in the future. But unlike the first form, this one is used when it’s not at all likely for the condition to be fulfilled!

Let’s take a look at an example:

“If I won the lottery, I would take all my friends on a huge holiday.”

Even though we are still talking about a possible future event, in this case, we use the past simple to describe the condition, and the word “would” to describe the result.

Third Conditional

Like the second conditional form, this one is also about describing something that is not possible to happen.

But the difference here is that you are describing something that could have happened in the past, while the second conditional described something that could take place in the future.

For example:

“If I had a bought a ticket that day, I would have won a prize.”

You use the past perfect tense to describe the condition in this form, and “would have” followed by the past participle to describe the result.

Sometimes you can also use “could have” or “should have” instead.

Your turn

Conditionals can seem a little complicated, but with some regular practice, you’ll soon get the hang of using them! Keep practicing them by reading and writing different examples as often as you can – try to come up with one example of each form of the conditional!