If you’re an intermediate (B2) English learner, you’ve probably encountered conditionals (you just read an example of one!). However, conditionals are an aspect of English grammar that can feel a little complicated and tedious. There are different types of conditionals, all of which serve an important purpose, so learning how and when to use conditionals takes time.
That being said, conditionals don’t have to be boring! When used properly, they can help you talk about your dreams, aspirations, and future possibilities. It’s just a matter of learning the basic grammar rules.
So, to get a better understanding of how conditionals work, we will look at the different types of conditionals and examples of how they are used. But first, let’s define the term.
What Are Conditionals?
Conditionals are statements that describe both hypothetical and real scenarios. They are often referred to as “if clauses” because they often begin the same way.
Here are a few examples:
Note that “if” does not have to be the first word. In fact, while most conditionals make use of the word, it is not a requirement to include “if” in a conditional sentence. “When” can also be used in place of “if” in some cases.
What can you talk about with conditionals?
Conditionals allow you to go far beyond the limitations of standard English tenses. While some people refer to it as the “conditional tense,” it is more accurately described as the “conditional mood.” This “mood” lets you discuss a wide range of topics, including:
Four Types of Conditionals
There are 4 basic types of conditionals: the zero conditional, the first conditional, the second conditional, and the third conditional.
It’s also possible to mix them up and use the first part of a sentence as one type of conditional and the second part as another. These sentences would be called “mixed conditionals.”
1. The Zero Conditional
The zero conditional expresses something that is considered to be a universal truth or when one action always follows another.
if (or when) + present tense | present tense
if (or when) + past tense | past tense
As you might have noticed, the order of clauses is not fixed in the conditional. However, if you move “if” or “when” to the middle of the sentence, you must remove the comma. This rule applies to all 4 types of conditionals.
*Note: The zero conditional is the only type of conditional in which “when” can replace “if.”
2. The First Conditional
The first conditional expresses a future scenario that might occur. Assuming that the condition is fulfilled, the outcome is likely to happen.
if + present tense | will (may/might/can/could/should) + infinitive
The zero conditional refers to general truths, while the first conditional refers to specific situations. Though “will” is most commonly used in the first conditional, you can also use “may,” “might,” “can,” “could,” or “should.” However, as outlined above, each of these modal verbs can change the meaning of the sentence.
3. The Second Conditional
The second conditional can either refer to future hypotheticals that are unlikely to be true or present situations that are untrue or impossible.
if + past subjunctive | would/might/could + infinitive (simple or continuous)
*if + simple past | would/might/could + infinitive (simple or continuous)
Though the second conditional resembles the first conditional in meaning, their structures are distinct. Moreover, the first conditional usually refers to future events that are likely to happen, while the second conditional refers to events that are unlikely to happen (or current impossibilities).
4. The Third Conditional
The third conditional expresses an unreal situation in the past, with reference to the hypothetical outcome that would result also in the past.
if + past perfect subjunctive | would (could/might) + perfect infinitive
*if + past perfect | would (could/might) + perfect infinitive
Both the second and third conditional can refer to impossible events. However, the second conditional refers to impossibilities in the present (“If I were you…”), while the third conditional refers to impossibilities in the past. The situations expressed in the third conditional are impossible because they already transpired and therefore cannot be changed.
Additional Exercises and Resources
One of the best ways to learn the rules outlined above is to practice conditional exercises. Thankfully, there are a number of free exercises available online. Here are some of the best conditionals resources to get you started:
We hope you found this guide useful! Like any part of English grammar, you will need to practice in order to get the hang of it. That being said, the rules are pretty straightforward. So, once you learn the right formats and situations in which the conditional mood is used, you’re all set!