A conditional sentence usually begins with the word “if.” It talks about the relationship between a situation and its result. If condition (A) happens, then result (B) happens. Seems straightforward, right?
Well, not exactly. Sometimes (A) and (B) are true, and sometimes they’re imaginary. Sometimes (A) and (B) happened in the past, sometimes they are happening now, sometimes they will happen in the future, and sometimes they exist only in our imaginations. In English, each of these situations changes the grammar pattern that we use. Confusing!
Let’s start by looking at just two types of conditional sentences—Real Conditions (Conditional One sentences) and Unreal Present/Future Conditions (Conditional Two sentences).
A Conditional One sentence is true or possible.
Consider the picture below.
Let’s make some conditional sentences about what happens with them regularly: what are the results of certain conditions?
- If they are busy (and they often are), they don’t talk to each other. They have to work.
- If they finish their projects, they can take a coffee break and chat.
What else can we say?
Sometimes, they work hard, and they do finish. They feel happy when this happens. These are true.
- If they work hard, they feel happy.
Lily has a boyfriend. She likes to see him as much as she can. These are true.
- If she finishes work early today (which is possible), she will call him, and they will go to a movie.
- If she doesn’t finish her work (which is also possible because she is pretty busy), she won’t be able to see him until the weekend.
Here’s another example:
This is a picture of me when I was a child. (Cute, hunh?) I was sick (my condition), and my mom took care of me (the result). This was true.
- Whenever I was sick, my mother took care of me.
- Whenever I was sick, I stayed home from school and rested.
The word “whenever” can be replaced by “if” to talk about these true conditions.
- If I was sick, my mother took care of me.
- If I was sick, I stayed home from school and rested.
Here are the verb patterns that we use to show these true/possible conditions.
|Time||Condition clause||Result clause|
|past||If + S + past tense
If I was sick
| S + past tense
my mother took care of me.
|present||If + S + simple present tense
If Lily and Dan finish their work
| S + simple present tense
|future|| If + S + simple present tense
If Lily finishes early
| S + future tense
she will call her boyfriend.
Notice how we cannot use the future tense in the “if” clause, but only in the result clause.
A Conditional Two sentence is untrue or imaginary in the present or future.
Alas! I am not a rich person. I do not have a lot of money in the bank. However, I like to dream about being rich. (imaginary condition).
- If I were rich, I could do so many things!
- If I were rich, I could buy a big house. I would buy a huge house on the beach!
The result of my imaginary condition is a huge house on the beach.
- If I were rich, I could travel. I would travel around the world!
- If I had a lot of money, I could buy an expensive car. I would buy a Lamborghini.
Note 1: Students often ask, “What is the difference between could and would in the result clause?”
- “Could” is used to show that there are many choices and that choice is just one of them.
- “Would” is used to show, of all the choices, that choice is the one that you like best.
Note 2: Students also ask, “Why did you use “were”? Shouldn’t you use “was”? You taught us I/She /He /It [Symbol] was and You/We/They [Symbol] were.”
Good observation! We use “were” for the “be verb” with ALL subjects to show the difference between a true past and an untrue present/future condition. (Note the presences of “would” or “could” with untrue present/future).
- If I was sick, my mom took care of me. (This is true. The use of “was” shows me that.)
- If I were sick, my mom would take care of me. (This is imaginary. The use of “were” shows me that.)
Here is another example.
People do not have wings. We have arms. Imagine life with wings!
- If we had wings, we could fly. We would feel so light and free. We could play with birds.
- If I had wings, I wouldn’t waste a moment. I would immediately fly over the mountains.
Here is the pattern we use to show these unreal or imaginary situations
|Condition Clause||Result Clause|
If + S + were (…) ,
If I were rich,
S + would (or) could + Verb 1
I could buy a fancy car.
I would buy a Lamborghini.
If + S + simple past form (…),
If I had a lot of money,
S + would (or) could + Verb 1
I could travel.
I would travel around the world.
NOTE: Verb 1 means the base or simple form of the verb. It is the verb with no changes—no “s,” no “ed,” no “ing.”
If you want more practice with this grammar point, you can watch the following YouTube video:
Fill in the correct verb forms for the following example of conditional sentences. Say whether it is Conditional One or Two. (Answers Below)
- When I was a child, my parents were very generous with me. If I (need) __________________ money, they always (give) _____________________ it to me. (Conditional 1 / 2 )
- I don’t have any brothers or sisters. This makes me sad. If I (have) __________________ a brother or a sister, I (share) _______________________ my secrets, hopes, and troubles with them. (Conditional 1 /2 )
- I am not the President of the U.S., but I have many ideas about how to make my country better. If I (be) ___________________ President, I (change) _______________________ many things. (Conditional 1 /2 )
- I like alcohol, but I am careful about when and how much I drink. If I (drive) _________________, I never (drink) _______________________. If my friends (drink) ________________________, I (let/-) __________________________ them drive home. (Conditional 1 /2 )
- I know you want me to come to your party tonight, but I have homework to do first. If I (finish) ______________________ it, I (go) _______________________ to your party, but if I (get/-) __________________________ it all done, I (go / -) __________________________________.
(Conditional 1 /2 )
- needed/gave/Conditional 1
- had/could or would share/Conditional 2
- were/could or would change/Conditional 2
- drive/drink/don’t let/Conditional 1
- finish/will go/don’t get/won’t go/ Conditional 1