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  Home > TEFL Clinic > Teaching Knowledge > Understanding Grammar


In the English language adverbial clauses beginning with 'if', 'provided that', 'unless', or with other conjunctions of similar meaning, when used together with another clause which tells what will or might happen in the event that the condition contained in the 'if clause' is fulfilled, are called 'conditionals'. For example:

  • If you smoke inside the building, you will set the fire alarm off.
  • If the fire alarm goes off, the computer automatically calls the fire brigade.

In EFL we give some conditionals the designations shown in the table below

Conditional Clauses

Condition clauseResult clause
Zero ConditionalIf + present simplepresent simple
First ConditionalIf + present simplewill + bare infinitive
Second ConditionalIf + past simplewould + bare infinitive
Third ConditionalIf + past perfectwould + have + past participle
Mixed ConditionalIf + past perfectwould + bare infinitive

It is very important that you know these and understand the differences between them as students and course books refer to them in this way. Let us look at these a little more closely.

The Zero Conditional

Form:If + present simple + present simple
Example:If water is cooled to below 0oC, it freezes.
Use:To express scientific facts and things that the speaker considers to be true in all situations when the condition is fulfilled.

The First Conditional

Form:If + present simple + will + bare infinitive
Example:If it rains, we'll go to the cinema instead.
Use:To express what will happen on the fulfilment of a condition that the speaker considers real and possible.

The Second Conditional

Form:If + past simple + would + bare infinitive
Example:If I had a car, I'd go out more.
Use:To express the result of an imaginary present or future situation. In the example as the speaker does not have a car, the condition is not fulfilled and therefore he/she does not go out more.

The Third Conditional

Form:If + past perfect + would + have + past participle
Example:If you had asked me, I would have gone with you.
Use:To express the result of an imaginary situation in the past. In the example the reality is that the speaker was not asked and so did not go with the listener.

Mixed Conditional

Form:If + past perfect + would + bare infinitive
Example:If you had studied harder, you would have a better job.
Use:To express the imaginary present result of an imaginary situation in the past.

It is also very important to understand that the above are not all the possibilities that exist. They are merely the most common.

Mini Quiz . 1

1. Identify the following conditional sentences:

a) If I get out of work early enough, I'll buy the tickets on the way home.
b) If you had called, I wouldn't have been so worried.
c) If I drink beer, I put on weight very quickly.
d) If I won the lottery, I'd buy a Ferrari.
e) If I win the lottery, I'll buy a Ferrari.
f) If I had married Linda, I'd be happy now.
g) I'd come with you if I didn't have so much work to do.
h) We'll be in real trouble if we're caught.
i) She won't speak to me. If I call her, she puts the phone down.
j) I wouldn't come now even if you begged me!
k) What would you do if you saw a ghost?
l) What would you have said if he had proposed?

2. What does the choice of conditionals in sentences (d) and (e) above tell us about the speakers?

3. In the sentences a-l above what time(s) do(es) each clause refer to?

4. Which sentences have conditions that the speaker considers imaginary?

5. Which conditional(s) is/are used to refer to:

a. unreal past events
b. unlikely/improbable future or imaginary/untrue present or future situations
c. general or universal truths
d. unreal past events with unreal present consequences
e. possible future situations / conditions which must happen so that something else can

[Check answers]

Answers to Quiz . 1 Conditionals:

QuestionConditionalCondition ClauseResult Clause
b3rdPast (Imaginary)Past
d2ndFuture (Imaginary)Future
fMixedPast (Imaginary)Past
g2ndPresent (Imaginary)Future
j2ndFuture or Present (Imaginary)Future
k2nd (Question)Future (Imaginary)Future
l3rd (Question)Past (Imaginary)Past

The speaker in (d) uses the 2nd conditional and so doesn't believe he will ever win the lottery, whereas the speaker in (e) is more optimistic and believes there is a chance he will win.

See table of answers for question 1.

See table of answers for question 1.

a) 3rd and Mixed
b) 2nd
c) Zero
d) Mixed
e) 1st

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