English Conditional Verbs: What Will, Could, or Could Never Happen
Conditionals are sentences with the word if. They talk about what will happen, what could happen, or what could never happen. One part of the sentence contains a condition. It is only true as long as the other part of the sentence is also true. In this posting I talk about 4 types of conditionals and how to form them. I include many example sentences. The download at the end will give you additional practice using conditionals.
Conditionals are sentences that contain a condition. This means that for one part of the sentence to be true, a condition has to be true. These sentences usually contain the word if. Here is an example: If I won the lottery, I would quit my job. I would like to quit my job, but I can only do if if I win the lottery. Winning the lottery is the condition that would make it possible to quit my job. Conditional sentences come in two parts, the if clause and the main clause. The if clause can come either at the beginning or at the end of the sentence. We can use our example sentence and say,” I would quit my job if I won the lottery.” Both ways of expressing a conditionals are correct and have the same meaning. Let us look at the 4 types of conditionals.
Zero Conditionals–Something that is always true
Zero conditionals talk about general truths. They can also be called real conditionals because they talk about real situations. Use this formula in forming zero conditionals: If + subject + simple present + subject + simple present, or subject + simple present + if + subject + simple present.
- If you heat water, it boils.
- Water boils if you heat it.
- If you walk in the rain, you get wet.
- You get wet if you walk in the rain.
The word when can often be substituted for if in a zero conditional sentence.
First Conditionals–Real or possible situations
First conditionals are also real conditionals. They talk about situations that are true or could possibly be true. Use this formula for first conditionals: if + subject + simple present + subject + simple future/can/may
- If I have time, I‘ll pick up some milk on the way home. I don’t know if I will have time to pick up some milk. If I do , however, it will be possible for me to do it.
- I‘ll pick up some milk on the way home if I have time. See note above.
- If it‘s a nice day tomorrow, we can hike in the mountains. Again, I don’t know what the weather will be like tomorrow. If it is nice, however, a hike in the mountains is possible.
- We can hike in the mountains tomorrow if it‘s a nice day. See note above.
- The Rockies may win the World Series if they go to the playoffs. We don’t know if the Rockies will go to the playoffs. If the do, however, winning the World Series is possible.
- If the Rockies go to the playoffs, they may win the World Series. See note above.
Second Conditionals–Situations in the present that are not true
Second conditionals are sometimes called unreal conditionals. They talk about situations that are not real or could never happen. Here is the formula to use: if + simple past + subject + would,could, or might + base form of the verb.
- If I won the lottery, I could buy a Rolls Royce. I did not win the lottery. I will probably never win the lottery, so I cannot buy a Rolls Royce.
- I could buy a Rolls Royce if I won the lottery. See note above.
- If I had wings, I could fly. I don’t have wings, and I will never have wings. Therefore, I can’t fly.
- I could fly if I had wings. See note above.
- If he ever told the truth, I might believe him this time. He never tells the truth, so I simply can’t believe him this time.
- I might believe him this time if he ever told the truth. See note above.
- If I were you, I would call my mother. I am not you.
- I would call my mother if I were you. See note above.
Notice that with I and be verb in second conditional sentences, we say I were, not I was. Many native English speaker, however make a mistake and say, “If I was…” Now you know better.
Third Conditionals–Past situations that did not or could not happen
Third conditionals are also unreal conditionals. They talk about what did not happen, or could never have happened in the past They often imply regret that things did not work out the way you had hoped. Here is the formula to use: if +past perfect + subject + would have/ could have/might have + past participle.
- If I had studied harder, I would have gotten into college. I didn’t study hard enough, and now I can’t go to college. I regret that.
- I would have gotten into college if I had studied harder. See note above.
- He could have told her that he loved her if he had known that she was leaving. He did not tell her he loved now she has left him.Now he feels very sad.
- If he had known that she was leaving, he could have told her that he loved her. See note above.
- If they had taken better care of themselves, they might not have become sick. They did not take good care of themselves. Now they are sick, and they feel badly.
- They might not have become sick if they had taken better care of themselves. See note above.
You now know that conditionals are sentences that contain the word if. They describe a condition. This means that one part of the sentence must be true for the other part to also be true. There are 4 types of conditionals: zero conditionals for general truths (both clauses in the simple present) first conditionals for situations that could possible be true (if clause in simple present, main clause in simple future or with may or can), second conditionals for present situations that are not true (if clause in the simple past, main clause with would/could/might), and third conditions for past situations that are not true (if clause in past perfect, main clause with would have/could have/might have). There is often regret associated with third conditionals. The download will give you more practice understanding and using conditionals.
Idioms of the day
- When the cat’s away, the mice will play.
This means that when the boss or the person in charge is away, the people will behave badly. As long as the teacher is watching, the children are well behaved. When she turns her back however, they begin to talk and throw things. When the cat’s away, the mice will play.
- if it kills me–This means that I will try my hardest to do something. It does not mean that I expect to die. If will do my best to help you get this job, even if it kills me.