Cheat sheet 7 – Conditionals

I have one condition: if you keep things simple, you will understand them. If you see the bigger picture, you can deduce the smaller details. If you understand the principles behind something then you are more likely to get it right.

Conditionals are just what we’ve seen above. A condition (the if part), something that is necessary for a particular result to happen (the will/would part). We usually start with the if, because it makes sense logically for us to think first about the condition. However, it is useful to know that the if clause is actually the subordinate clause, and the main clause will come after a comma in this case. A comma will not be needed if the subordinate clause comes second.

Conditionals are quite easy for Spanish students due to their similarities. But many students of the English language find this difficult. I will try to show you that remembering the 4 conditionals together makes it easier to remember each one.

So here is a brief outline of the uses for the 4 conditionals, and then a table to make it easy to remember them.

Zero conditional

People always forget about the zero conditional. It is actually used more often that you think. It is used to speak in absolutes. The speaker wants to say that there is no chance that the main clause will not happen when the if clause is completed.

                If you heat water to one hundred degrees, it boils (on Earth)

                If you break a mirror, it is seven years of bad luck

You can see this can be used for scientific facts but also superstitions; only these things can be said with certainty, and sometimes even scientific facts are not true all the time.

First conditional

Now we allow for some degree of chance. The condition must be met first, and there is a chance that it won’t happen or that the person won’t do it. But if the condition is met, then the consequence will definitely happen.

                If you copy your writing homework from Wikipedia, I will know

                Will you fall asleep if I put this movie on?

Second conditional

Now we are in the realm of the hypothetical. Everything here has a high degree of chance, and a low degree of possibility varying from almost impossible to quite unlikely. We use modals such as would, could, might to show this, and the past in the if clause.

If I could do any job in the world, I would probably be a tornado chaser.

                If I won the lottery, I would probably buy a mansion on the Costa Brava.

Third conditional

Okay, finally, the impossible one. Impossible, unless we can build a time machine that can take us back into the past and then affect the present. Impossible because it is the past condtional and we cannot change the past. Past perfect and past modals (would have, could have, should have) are used to express this.

If you hadn’t gone to school with me, we would never be friends

                If I could go back and do something different, I would probably change my haircut when I       was eight

All together now

                If clause                                              Main clause

│            0             100% certainty                 present simple                                present simple

│            1st                                                         present simple                                will + infinitive

│            2nd                                                       past simple                                       would + infinitive

↓           3rd         0% certainty                      past perfect                                      would have + infinitive


Written by James R. McCance for Aston School