Tenses

Brush Up On Your Tenses – The Conditional Tense

Conditional Tenses

Conditionals are a grammatical mood (remember moods) to express:

what happens

will happen

might have happened

would have happened

if you do

will do

did

did

something

In other words, they talk about the consequences of facts/hypothetical situations.

Example: If you read this article, your writing may improve.

In this example the improvement of your writing may happen, doesn’t just happen. It is a possible consequence of the condition of reading this article. Your writing may improve if you read this article. And yes, the sentence still means the same when you turn it around, but like always, you use a comma when you put the ‘if’ part before the main clause.

Conditional sentences have two parts:

  1. The main clause, stating what could/would/should happen (in past, present, or future)
  2. The conditional clause (the ‘if’ clause), stating what the condition is for the main clause to happen

Conditional tenses can be positive, mostly using ‘if’ in the condition, or negative, using ‘unless’ in the condition. The negative conditional tenses use the same sentence structure as the positive conditional tenses.

There are four types of conditional sentences, expressing different meanings.

Zero Conditional Tense

This is a commonly used form of the conditional tense.

Usage:

For general truths/realistic expectations, not specific situations.

Construction:

If clause –> simple present

Main clause –> simple present

Example: If you write, you are a writer.

 

First Conditional Tense

Usage:

These refer to possible conditions and probable real-world results in the future, based on facts. They are often warnings.

Construction:

If clause –> simple present

Main clause –> simple future (may contain modals)

Example: If you write today, you will finish your book tomorrow.

Example: If you don’t write today, you may not finish your book tomorrow.

The second example includes a modal in the main clause.

Note: For the next two Conditional tenses, you need to know:

The present conditional tense is formed by two elements: would + infinitive

Example: It would work.

The perfect conditional tense is formed by the elements: would have + past participle

Example: It would have worked.

Second Conditional Tense

Usage:

To describe a situation anytime that is very likely unreal. The if clause is hypothetical and/or completely unrealistic, i.e. not based on facts. The main clause, i.e. the result of the conditional, is probable but not certain.

Usually, a modal auxiliary verb (must, shall, will, should, would, can could, may, and might) is used in the main clause to express the (un)likelihood of the result happening.

Construction:

If clause –> simple past

Main clause –> present conditional/present continuous conditional

Example: If I won the lottery, I would share it with you.

Often, If I was… is replaced by If I were…

Example: If I were you, I wouldn’t do it.

Again, modals are usually used in the main clause.

Example: He might write a review if you paid him for it.

 

Third Conditional Tense

Usage:

To describe how things would be different if something had changed in the past. The main clause describes a contrast of the current reality, but the if clause could have been real.

Construction:

If clause –> past perfect

Main clause –> perfect conditional/perfect continuous conditional

Example: If only I had paid more attention at school, I would be a better writer now.

 

Mixed Conditional Tense

The ‘mixed’ refers to the different times of the two parts of the conditional sentence.

 Usage:

  1. When you express a present result of a past condition

Both parts of the sentence are a contrast of reality.

Construction:

  • If clause –> past perfect
  • Main clause –> present conditional

Example: If I sold a million books for 99c, I would be rich.

This is not the same as the Third Conditional Tense, where you use the past perfect and perfect conditional.

  1. When you express a past result of a present/continuing condition.

Construction:

  • If clause –> simple past (now or always)
  • Main clause –> perfect conditional (before now)

Example: If I wasn’t so distracted by social media, I would have finished my novel a long time ago.

 

Overview

Conditional sentence type Usage If clause verb tense Main clause verb tense
Zero General truths Simple present Simple present
Type 1 A possible condition and its probable result Simple present Simple future
Type 2 A hypothetical condition and its probable result Simple past Present conditional or Present continuous conditional
Type 3 An unreal past condition and its probable result in the past Past perfect Perfect conditional
Mixed type An unreal past condition and its probable result in the present

An unreal (current) condition and its probable result in the past

Past perfect

 

Simple past

Present conditional

 

Perfect conditional

(Table adapted from https://www.ef.co.uk/english-resources/english-grammar/conditional/)

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