The English language may seem to be fairly simple for a first language speaker, but when it comes to explaining the different parts of speech and their uses, even experienced speakers may find that that are at a loss for words. This is where a simple guide will come in handy – whether you are learning English or teaching it to someone else, the simple guide series will tell you everything you need to know. This one deals with conditionals.

What is a conditional?

Conditionals are sentences that refer to past, present and future possibilities. They have two clauses: One containing a condition, the other containing the result of that condition. The clause containing the condition usually contains the word "if" and is called the "if clause". Either clause can come first in the sentence e.g.

If you run too fast, you might fall. (Condition = Running too fast, Result = Falling)

I will give it to her if she comes with tonight. (Condition = She comes with, Result = She gets what I have to give her)

There are various conditionals depending on how the tenses are mixed and on the level of certainty indicated. The main English conditional will be discussed, their names are easy to remember as they are titles according to their number in a sequence (zero, first, second, third and mixed). The sequence starts with definite situations and results and progressively lessens the possibility that a condition or result is possible.

Zero conditional

The zero conditional is not linked to any tense and deals with facts. The conditions will always bring about the same definite result (no matter whether the condition takes place in the past, present or future).

Form: If + Present Simple, Present Simple

If you don't sleep, you get tired.

You get burned if you sit in the sun for too long.

Note: When dealing with this conditional, "if" can be replaced with "when" and the meaning will remain the same (When you don't sleep, you get tired). For more information on the present simple tense, see The Simple Guide to English Present Tenses: The Present Simple Tense.

First Conditional

The first conditional is used to indicate a future possibility and a future result. There is a good chance that the condition will happen – it is very probable.

Form: If + Present Simple, Will (or modal verb) + Base form of verb

If you eat too much cake, you will get fat.

He will pass all of his exams if he studies every day.

Note: The word "Will" can be replaced with a modal verb such as might, may, shall and can when the result is still very possible but not as probable e.g.

If you leave now, it might still be open.

The fabric can tear if you pull it too hard.

Note: For more information on the base form of a verb, see The Simple Guide To Participles.

Second conditional

The second conditional is used to indicate a present or future possibility and result that is not currently true and most likely never will be. There is not a good chance that the condition will happen, and no real chance for the result to come about.

Form: If + Past Simple, Would/Could/Might + Base Form of Verb

If I had four legs, I could swim very fast.

I would ask for world peace if I met a genie.

Note: For more information on the past simple tense, see The Simple Guide to English Past Tenses: The Past Simple Tense.

Third conditional

The third conditional is used to refer to a past condition that could have happened and the past result that could have come about. The condition cannot be satisfied (as the situation has already past) so the result is impossible – there is no chance at all of it happening.

Form: If + Past Perfect, Would/Could/Might + Have + Past Participle

If I had gotten there sooner, I could have gotten a ticket.

I might have seen the game if there had not been an accident on the road.

Note: for more information on the past perfect tense, see The Simple Guide to English Past Tenses: The Past Perfect Tense. For more information on past participles, see The Simple Guide to Participles.

Mixed conditional

The most common combination of conditionals is that of the second and third conditionals. This is used to refer to a past condition that could have happened for a present result to have come about. Since the situation is in the past and cannot be changed, the condition is not possible and the result is also not possible.

Form: If + Past Perfect, Would + Base form of verb

If I had bought that car, I would lend it to you.

I would be very late if I had missed that flight.

Keep it simple

As always, there are other possibilities and exceptions in the English language and other mixes of conditionals are possible. The mix contained in this guide is the most common however, and by learning it along with the four main conditionals, you will be well informed on the topic of English conditionals.