We use conditionals in most languages and we frequently stop mid-conversation to use this expression “what if“. We have four conditionals in English. The zero conditional, first, second and third. We are going to go through each one and look at some examples.
Why do we call it a zero conditional? It is because it does not depend on anything and we use it mostly for facts and real situations. We use the present simple plus the present simple. Let’s look at this example:
If you heat water, it boils. (it does not depend on anything) It is a fact. Present simple + present simple
If you do not study for your exams, you fail them.
If you work hard in your job, you get promotion.
We use the first conditional when the situation is likely or possible. It depends on something. We use the present simple after the if clause followed by simple future or modal verbs.
If it rains, I will stay at home (Staying at home depends on the weather). If it rains, I can read a book. Present simple+ simple future or modal verbs. We separate the if clause with a comma only when the sentence starts with IF.
We can also say I will stay at home if it rains. You do not need to put a comma if the sentence does not begin with IF. Both sentences are correct.
We use the second conditional when the situation is hypothetical, imaginary or almost impossible. We use the past simple + would + infinitive.
If I won the lottery, I would buy a nice car – past simple + would + buy. It is impossible since I do not play the lottery. I am imagining the situation. I can also say I would buy a nice car if I won the lottery.
If I went to London, I would visit many places. It is impossible. I cannot go to London. We can also say I would visit many places if I went to London.
We use the third conditional mainly for regret and desire. It is purely hypothetical in the past. We cannot turn the clock back. What has happened has happened. We have a nice expression in English “don’t cry over spilt milk”. Things cannot be undone so we imagine them differently by using the third conditional.
We use the conditional with past perfect simple + would have + past participle.
If I had studied more, I would have passed the exam. The reality is that I did not study and so I did not pass the exam. If I had studied more is how I imagine it to be different. This indicates past regret.
If I had gone to University to study medicine, I would have been a doctor. (I did not go to University so I am not a doctor today.
If I had not gone to the party, I would not have met my husband – this indicates past desire.
Finish the half sentences:
If I saw Brad Pitt, ……………..
If I had money, ————–
If I had been born in France,……………..
If I study hard,……………
If I were a doctor, …………..
If I had done my homework, ………………
If the sun shines, ………….
If I had a Ferrari,…………….
You will soon understand when it is a zero, first, second or conditional. It is important to always use the formulas correctly.
Zero conditional – present simple + present simple
First conditional – present simple -simple future or modal
Second conditional – past simple + would + infinitive
Third conditional – past perfect simple + would have + past participle
Now start to practise them by doing quizzes. Search esl conditionals
Once you have mastered these important conditionals, it is time to look at mixed conditionals. Look out for this post!