If I’d known how to use English conditionals, I’d have passed the test. Phil Stoneman guides you through the linguistics of ‘what if..?’
English conditionals: I was in a taxi the other day, listening to the radio. The politician Claudia López was talking about her desire to be president. “If I become president, I’ll make many changes,” she said. Of course, this got a reaction from the taxi driver. He told me that he didn’t finish high school, but he could still do a good job as president. “If I became president, I’d make many changes,” he said. After this, they interviewed Óscar Zuluaga, who tried to become president in 2014 but lost to Santos. He was sad about what had happened. “If I’d become president, I’d have made many changes,” he said.
English conditionals are very useful to talk about things that might happen, things that you’d like to happen, and things that you wish had happened. They’re powerful ways to discuss hypothetical ideas and speculate on possibilities. As you can see from the paragraph above though, there are various types of English conditionals, and you need to be very clear about which one you’re using to communicate your ideas. Let’s take a look at the different types of conditional, and how they are used.
Contractions: keep it short!
Usually when you’re using English conditionals, it’s important to use contractions too – this is true for writing, and for speaking: you really don’t want to sound like the Queen of England! So practice the pronunciation of these contractions, and your speech will sound much more natural:
I’ll, not I will
I’d, not I would
I’d, not I had
Remember that ‘d has two different meanings, so you need to look carefully at the sentence to see if it means ‘would’ or ‘had’.
Changing things around
It’s always possible to change the order of a conditional sentence: you can start with the “if” clause, or you can put it second. The conjugations of the verbs in each part of the sentence stay the same, but remember that you only use a comma when you start with the “if” clause:
• If I found some money in the street, I’d probably keep it.
• I’d probably keep it if I found some money in the street.
|Conditionals||If clause (condition)||main clause (result)|
for present, real/factual situations
If I study hard,
I pass my exams.
for future real/factual situations
If I study hard,
|will + base verb
I will pass my exams.
for present or future unreal situations
If I studied hard,
|would +base verb
I would pass my exams.
for past unreal situations
If I had studied hard,
|would have + past participle
I would have passed my exams.
• What will happen to the football match if it rains?
• If it rains, the match will be cancelled.
The first conditional is used to talk about things that have a strong possibility of happening – such as the ever-present rain in Bogotá! We think that this thing will probably happen, or at least is a definite possibility. Claudia López used it to show she was confident.
How to make it:
If + subject + present simple | subject + future with “will” or “won’t”
If my sister has to work on Saturday, she won’t go out on Friday.
If I see my friend at the office, I’ll invite him to the party.
You can also use adverbs to be more specific about how probable a situation is:
If she doesn’t study for the exam, she’ll probably fail the exam.
If you don’t go to bed early today, you’ll possibly feel tired tomorrow.
As you can see, all these examples use the word “if”, which is generally very useful when you’re making conditional sentences. There’s another very important word too, though: unless. This has a negative meaning, similar to “if not”:
Unless it rains tomorrow, we’ll go to the beach.
• If I saw a ghost in my house, I’d be terrified!
The second conditional is used to talk more hypothetically. Here, we’re usually describing things that definitely won’t happen, or have only a small chance of happening. They might be possible, but by using the second conditional, we show that it’s a hypothetical situation.
How to make it:
If + subject + past simple | subject + verb with “would” or “wouldn’t”
If my brother didn’t work so hard, he wouldn’t feel so tired.
If Colombia won the World Cup, everyone would celebrate!
You can also use the second conditional to give advice, specifically using the phrase “If I were you…”:
If I were you, I’d see a doctor.
You can also change would for could or might to make the situation you’re describing even more hypothetical:
If I won the lottery, I’d buy a Ferrari. = If I won the lottery, then I would definitely do this.
If I won the lottery, I could buy a Ferrari. = If I won the lottery, then I would have enough money for a Ferrari. I don’t know if I’d buy one, though!
• If I hadn’t come to Colombia, I wouldn’t have learnt to dance salsa!
The third conditional is again used to talk hypothetically, but specifically about an event in the past. It’s a useful way to think about how a situation could have been different if life had taken another direction. We also use this to express our regret or happiness about how things went.
How to make it:
If + subject + past perfect | subject + verb with “would” or “wouldn’t” + have + past participle
If I hadn’t forgotten my umbrella yesterday, I wouldn’t have got wet.
If she hadn’t stolen that money, she wouldn’t have been arrested.
Third conditional sentences talk about a past event that had a past consequence, and how things could have been different hypothetically. Notice how events A and B are linked together:
(A) past event –› (B) past consequence
Real event: I ate a horrible hamburger(A), then I felt sick(B).
Third conditional: If I hadn’t eaten a horrible hamburger(A), I wouldn’t have felt sick!(B)
It’s also possible to create mixed English conditionals, where we talk about a past event and a current consequence:
If he hadn’t gone to the doctor, he wouldn’t be feeling better now.
If Peter Parker hadn’t been bitten by a spider, he wouldn’t be Spiderman.
|It’s quiz time! Can you complete the sentences with the correct conjugations of the verbs in brackets?
1) If I ___________ (not learn) Spanish, it’d be hard for me to live in Colombia now.
Originally from Sheffield, England, Phil Stoneman has been teaching English in Colombia since 2004. If he hadn’t become an English teacher, he’d probably have become a rock star.