There are different types of conditions. Some are possible or likely, others are unlikely, and others are impossible:
If the weather improves, we’ll go for a walk. (It is possible or likely that the weather will improve.)
If the weather improved, we could go for a walk. (It is not likely that the weather will improve.)
If the weather had improved, we could have gone for a walk. (The weather did not improve – fine weather is therefore an impossible condition.)
These types of conditions are used in three types of sentences, called first, second and third conditional sentences.
Imagined conditions: the first conditional
We use the first conditional to talk about the result of an imagined future situation, when we believe the imagined situation is quite likely:
[imagined future situation]If the taxi doesn’t come soon, [future result]I’ll drive you myself.
First conditional: form
if + present simple
modal verb with future meaning (shall/should/will/would/can/could/may/might)
We use the modal verb in the main clause, not in the conditional clause.
If a lawyer reads the document, we will see if we’ve missed anything important.
If a lawyer will read the document…
Imagined conditions: the second conditional
We use the second conditional to talk about the possible result of an imagined situation in the present or future. We say what the conditions must be for the present or future situation to be different.
If people complained, things would change. (People don’t complain at themoment.)
Second conditional: form
if + past simple
modal verb with future-in-the-past meaning (should/would/might/could)
We use a past form in the conditional clause to indicate a distance from reality, rather than indicating past time. We often use past forms in this way in English.
We use would in the main clause, not in the conditional clause:
If you decided to take the exam, you would have to register by 31 March.
If you would decide to take the exam…
First and second conditional compared
When we use the first conditional, we think the imagined situation is more likely to happen than when we use the second conditional.
(it’s possible or likely that the flight will be late)
Imagined conditions: the third conditional
We use the third conditional when we imagine a different past, where something did or did not happen, and we imagine a different result:
If I had played better, I would have won. (I didn’t play well and I didn’t win.)
It would have been easier if George had brought his own car. (George didn’t bring his own car, so the situation was difficult.)
If the dog hadn’t barked, we wouldn’t have known there was someone in the garden. (The dog barked, so we knew there was someone in the garden.)
Third conditional: form
if + past perfect
modal verb with future-in-the-past meaning (should/would/might/could) + have + -ed form
We use would have + -ed in the main clause, not in the conditional clause:
If he had stayed in the same room as Dave, it would have been a disaster.
If he would have stayed… it would have been a disaster.
People do sometimes use the form with would have in informal speaking, but many speakers consider it incorrect.
Some conditions seem more real to us than others. Real conditionals refer to things that are true, that have happened, or are very likely to happen:
If you park here, they clamp your wheels. (It is always true that they clamp your wheels if, or every time, you park here.)
If I can’t sleep, I listen to the radio. (it is often true that I can’t sleep, so I listen to the radio)
In real conditional sentences, we can use the present simple or present continuous in both clauses for present situations, and the past simple or past continuous in both clauses for past situations. We can use these in various different combinations.
Present simple + present simple
If the weather is fine, we eat outside on the terrace. (Every time this happens, this is what we do.)
Present continuous + present simple
If the kids are enjoying themselves, we just let them go on playing till they’re ready for bed. (Every time this happens, this is what we do.)
Present continuous + present continuous
If the economy is growing by 6%, then it is growing too fast. (If it is true that the economy is growing by 6%, then it is true that it is growing too fast.)
Past simple + past simple
If my father had a day off, we always went to see my granddad. (Every time that happened in the past, that is what we did.)
Past simple + past continuous
Kevin always came in to say hello if he was going past our house. (Every time he was going past our house, that is what he did.)
We can also use modal verbs in the main clause:
If we go out, we can usually get a baby sitter. (Every time we go out, it is usually possible to get a babysitter.)
If we wanted someone to fix something, we would ask our neighbour. He was always ready to help. (Every time we wanted someone, we would ask our neighbour.)
Types of conditional: summary
The table shows how the main types of conditionals relate to one another.
less likely/less possible
(We do this every time it snows.)
(It is possible or likely she will get the job.)
(It is less likely or unlikely that we will get more students.)
(The rent was not low enough.)
If + should
We can use if with should to refer to events which might happen by chance or by accident:
If you should bump into Carol, can you tell her I’m looking for her? (If by chance you bump into Carol.)
If the government should ever find itself in this situation again, it is to be hoped it would act more quickly.
Conditional clauses with will or would
Will and would can be used in conditional clauses, either with the meaning of ‘being willing to do something’, or to refer to later results:
If Clare will meet us at the airport, it will save us a lot of time. (if Clare is willing to meet us)
If you would all stop shouting, I will try and explain the situation!
If it will make you happy, I’ll stay at home tonight. (If it is true that you will be happy as a result, I’ll stay at home tonight.)
We sometimes stress the will or would, especially if we doubt that the result will be the one mentioned:
If it really would save the planet, I’d stop using my car tomorrow. (If it really is true that the planet would be saved as a result, I would stop using my car, but I doubt it is true.)
Often, things that did or did not happen in the past have results which continue or are still important in the present. We can emphasise this by using if with a past perfect verb, and would in the main clause.
If I hadn’t met Charles, I wouldn’t be here now. (I met Charles so I’m here now.)
She wouldn’t still be working for us if we hadn’t given her a pay-rise. (We gave her a pay-rise so she is still working for us now.)
Conditionals in speaking
In speaking, we often use if-clauses without main clauses, especially when asking people politely to do things. If is usually followed by will, would, can or could when it is used to be polite:
[Shop assistant to customer]
If you would just sign here, please. (a more polite way of saying Just sign here, please.)
[A is writing something for B and having difficulty]
If I could have a better pen …B:
Here, use this one.A:
(“Conditionals: if” aus English Grammar Today © Cambridge University Press.)
- Adjectives and adverbs
Easily confused words
- Above or over?
- Across, over or through?
- Advice or advise?
- Affect or effect?
- All or every?
- All or whole?
- Allow, permit or let?
- Almost or nearly?
- Alone, lonely, or lonesome?
- Along or alongside?
- Already, still or yet?
- Also, as well or too?
- Alternate(ly), alternative(ly)
- Although or though?
- Altogether or all together?
- Amount of, number of or quantity of?
- Any more or anymore?
- Anyone, anybody or anything?
- Apart from or except for?
- Arise or rise?
- Around or round?
- Arouse or rouse?
- As or like?
- As, because or since?
- As, when or while?
- Been or gone?
- Begin or start?
- Beside or besides?
- Between or among?
- Born or borne?
- Bring, take and fetch
- Can, could or may?
- Classic or classical?
- Come or go?
- Consider or regard?
- Consist, comprise or compose?
- Content or contents?
- Different from, different to or different than?
- Do or make?
- Down, downwards or downward?
- During or for?
- Each or every?
- East or eastern; north or northern?
- Economic or economical?
- Efficient or effective?
- Elder, eldest or older, oldest?
- End or finish?
- Especially or specially?
- Every one or everyone?
- Except or except for?
- Expect, hope or wait?
- Experience or experiment?
- Fall or fall down?
- Far or a long way?
- Farther, farthest or further, furthest?
- Fast, quick or quickly?
- Fell or felt?
- Female or feminine; male or masculine?
- Finally, at last, lastly or in the end?
- First, firstly or at first?
- Fit or suit?
- Following or the following?
- For or since?
- Forget or leave?
- Full or filled?
- Fun or funny?
- Get or go?
- Grateful or thankful?
- Hear or listen (to)?
- High or tall?
- Historic or historical?
- House or home?
- How is …? or What is … like?
- If or when?
- If or whether?
- Ill or sick?
- Imply or infer?
- In the way or on the way?
- It’s or its?
- Late or lately?
- Lay or lie?
- Lend or borrow?
- Less or fewer?
- Look at, see or watch?
- Low or short?
- Man, mankind or people?
- Maybe or may be?
- Maybe or perhaps?
- Nearest or next?
- Never or not … ever?
- Nice or sympathetic?
- No doubt or without doubt?
- No or not?
- Nowadays, these days or today?
- Open or opened?
- Opportunity or possibility?
- Opposite or in front of?
- Other, others, the other or another?
- Out or out of?
- Permit or permission?
- Person, persons or people?
- Pick or pick up?
- Play or game?
- Politics, political, politician or policy?
- Price or prize?
- Principal or principle?
- Quiet or quite?
- Raise or rise?
- Remember or remind?
- Right or rightly?
- Rob or steal?
- Say or tell?
- So that or in order that?
- Sometimes or sometime?
- Sound or noise?
- Speak or talk?
- Such or so?
- There, their or they’re?
- Towards or toward?
- Wait or wait for?
- Wake, wake up or awaken?
- Worth or worthwhile?
- Nouns, pronouns and determiners
Prepositions and particles
- Among and amongst
- At, in and to (movement)
- At, on and in (place)
- At, on and in (time)
- Beneath: meaning and use
- By + myself etc.
- For + -ing
- In front of
- In spite of and despite
- In, into
- Near and near to
- On, onto
- Prepositional phrases
Words, sentences and clauses
- about words, clauses and sentences
- as and as expressions
- comparing and contrasting
conditionals and wishes
- Conditional clauses with will or would
- First and second conditional compared
- If + should
- Imagined conditions
- Imagined conditions: the first conditional
- Imagined conditions: the second conditional
- Imagined conditions: the third conditional
- Mixed conditionals
- Real conditionals
- Conditionals in speaking
- Types of conditional: summary
- Conditionals: other expressions (unless, should, as long as)
- Conditionals: typical errors
- If only
- In case (of)
- It’s time
- Suppose, supposing and what if
- Conditionals: if
- linking words and expressions
- questions and negative sentences
- relative clauses
- reported speech
- so and such
- word formation
- word order and focus
- Using English
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able to deal successfully with dangerous or difficult situations in big towns or cities where there is a lot of crime