The Four Types of Conditionals and How to Use Them

Man thinking to show conditionals

If you’re an intermediate English learner, you’ve probably encountered conditionals (you just read an example of one!). However, they 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 them correctly 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 they 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?

In short, 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:

  • General truth – If I eat breakfast, I feel good all day.
  • Future event – If I have a test tomorrow, I will study tonight.
  • Hypothetical situation – If I had a million dollars, I would buy a boat!
  • Hypothetical outcome – If I had prepared for the interview, I would have gotten the job.

Note that “if” does not have to be the first word. In fact, while most of them 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 them?

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:

  • Hypothetical situations (i.e. unreal or imagined events)
  • Events that are likely to happen in the future
  • Events that are unlikely to happen in the future
  • General truths or habits
  • Impossible scenarios

Four Types of Conditionals

There are 4 basic types of conditionals: zero, first, second, and third.

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

  • When I did my homework, my teacher was happy.*
  • If the temperature reaches zero degrees Celsius, water freezes.
  • My mom comforted me when I got scared.*
  • If you mix red and yellow, you get orange.

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.

*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

  • If I get paid today, I will go shopping. (“Will” implies near certainty about the shopping trip in case the condition is fulfilled)
  • We could go to Paris if we save enough money. (“Could” indicates that the result is possible.)
  • If she knows the truth, she might not be happy. (“Might” implies a degree of uncertainty about her happiness in case the condition is fulfilled.)
  • They can do it if they try. (“Can” indicates that the result is possible.)
  • If I see the man, I may say something to him. (“May” implies a degree of uncertainty about saying something to him in case the condition is fulfilled.)
  • He should get a dog if he is lonely. (“Should” indicates that the speaker is giving their opinion.)

This type 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)

  • If I were rich, I would travel the world.
  • If she were to try harder, she might get better grades.
  • They might be able to see it if they were more observant.
  • If I met the President, I would be too nervous to speak.
  • If he played sports, he might be in better shape.
  • He could get the promotion if he knew the right people.

Though the second 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 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

  • If I had known how you were going to react, I would have kept my mouth shut.
  • If you had seen the movie, we could have talked about the ending.
  • We might have crossed paths if I had left the house on time.

Both the second and third conditionals can refer to impossible events. However, the second refers to impossibilities in the present (“If I were you…”), while the third 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 resources to get you started:

Conclusion

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 said, the rules are pretty straightforward. So, once you learn the right formats and situations in which to use them, you’re all set!

Now that we’ve gone over these grammar rules, it’s all about using them correctly in real life. I should warn you that real life is complex, nuanced, and not nearly as clean as your grammar book. Today, we’ll have our lead instructor talk about mixed conditionals, a phenomenon that happens frequently in real life conversations.
 

By the way, improve your IELTS score with Magoosh!

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