Conditionals Compact – The Basics

For students and teachers alike, here is a concise summary of the structures and uses of the various ‘standard’ conditional sentence types in English. I’ve used what I would consider ‘key words’, so that the usage of each type of conditional sentence is clearly different from the others. 

More advanced points about conditionals, as well as mixed conditionals will be dealt with in a later post. 

Zero Conditional

Structure: if + simple present, simple present
Use: Result is always true (“natural law”). No link to specific time
Examples: If you boil water, it becomes steam. If you boil water, it doesn‘t become ice.  Does ice melt if you heat it?
First Conditional

Structure: If + simple present tense, will future
Use: Situation still possible. Situation highly probable. (Often: Warnings based on present evidence.)
Examples: If it doesn‘t rain, I‘ll play tennis. Will you play football, if it snows? If you go to London, where will you stay?
Second Conditional

Structure: If + simple past, would + bare infinitive
Use: Situation still possible. Situation unlikely. (Often: Advice)
Examples: If I found €1000, I would buy a new coat. If they weren‘t so expensive, I‘d buy a new mobile phone. Would he help her if she asked him?
Third Conditional

Structure: If + past perfect,  would + have + past participle
Use: Situation (or changing it) no longer possible. (Often: Regrets)
Examples: She would have helped him, if he had asked her. I would have sent you a postcard, if I hadn‘t forgotten my address book. If your mother had seen you drunk, what would she have said?

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