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English conditional sentences

As is typical for many languages, full conditional sen- If you see it, photograph it. (imper-
tences in English consist of a condition clause or protasis ative sentence, condition rst)
specifying a condition or hypothesis, and a consequence Photograph it if you see it. (imper-
clause or apodosis specifying what follows from that con- ative sentence, condition second)
dition. The condition clause is a dependent clause, most
commonly headed by the conjunction if, while the con-
As with other dependent clauses in English, it is com-
sequence is contained in the main clause of the sentence.
mon for a comma to be used to separate the clauses if
Either clause may appear rst.
the dependent clause comes rst (as is done in the above
Dierent types of conditional sentences (depending examples). See Comma Separation of clauses.
largely on whether they refer to a past, present or fu-
It is possible for the consequence clause to appear alone
ture time frame) require the use of particular verb forms
in a sentence, without a condition clause, if the condition
(tenses and moods) to express the condition and the con-
has been previously stated or is understood from the con-
sequence. In English language teaching the most com-
text. It may also be shortened by verb phrase ellipsis; a
mon patterns are referred to as rst conditional, second
minimal conditional sentence could therefore be some-
conditional and third conditional; there is also a zero
thing like Would you?" or I would.
conditional and mixed conditional.
For more general information about the uses of verb
tenses, moods and aspects in English, see Uses of English
verb forms.
2 English language teaching
In English language teaching, conditional sentences are
often classied under the headings zero conditional,
1 Overview rst conditional (or conditional I), second conditional
(or conditional II), third conditional (or conditional III)
In English conditional sentences, the condition clause and mixed conditional, according to the grammatical
(protasis) is a dependent clause, most commonly intro- pattern followed, particularly in terms of the verb tenses
duced by the conjunction if. Other conjunctions or equiv- and auxiliaries used.
alent expressions may also be used, such as unless (mean-
ing if...not), provided (that), providing (that) and as long
as. Certain condition clauses can also be formulated us- 2.1 Zero conditional
ing inversion without any conjunction; see Inversion in
condition clauses below. Zero conditional refers to conditional sentences that ex-
press a factual implication, rather than describing a hy-
The apodosis, expressing the consequence of the stated pothetical situation or potential future circumstance (see
condition, is generally the main clause of the sentence. Types of conditional sentence). The term is used partic-
Depending on the sentence type, it may be a statement, ularly when both clauses are in the present tense; how-
question, or order. It may appear before or after the con- ever such sentences can be formulated with a variety of
dition clause: tenses/moods, as appropriate to the situation:

If I see him, I will tell him. (declar- If you don't eat for a long time, you
ative sentence, condition rst) become hungry.
I will tell him if I see him. (declar- If the alarm goes o, theres a re
ative sentence, condition second) somewhere in the building.
If you saw him, would you tell him? If you are going to sit an exam to-
(interrogative sentence, condition morrow, go to bed early tonight!
rst) If aspirins will cure it, I'll take a
Would you tell him if you saw him? couple tonight.
(interrogative sentence, condition When you make a mistake, some-
second) one lets you know.


The rst of these sentences is a basic zero conditional with If you should make a mistake, ...
both clauses in the present tense. The fourth is an exam- (equivalent to If you make a mis-
ple of the use of will in a condition clause[1] (for more take)
such cases, see below). The use of verb tenses, moods Should you make a mistake, ...
and aspects in the parts of such sentences follows general (inverted form equivalent to the
principles, as described in Uses of English verb forms. above).
Occasionally, mainly in a formal and somewhat archaic If you should be young, ... (equiva-
style, a subjunctive is used in the condition clause (as in lent to If you are young)
If the prisoner be held for more than ve days, ...). For Should you be young, ... (inverted
more details see English subjunctive. (See also Inver- form equivalent to the above)
sion in condition clauses below.)
Otherwise, the condition clause in a rst conditional pat-
tern is not normally formed with a modal verb, other than
2.2 First conditional can. However, there are certain situations (often involv-
ing polite expressions) where will, would and could may
First conditional or conditional I refers to a pattern be used in such clauses; see Use of will and would in
used in predictive conditional sentences, i.e. those that condition clauses below. For the occasional use of the
concern consequences of a probable future event (see subjunctive in the condition clause, see under zero con-
Types of conditional sentence). In the basic rst condi- ditional above. In colloquial English, an imperative may
tional pattern, the condition is expressed using the present be used with the meaning of a condition clause, as in go
tense (having future meaning in this context), and the eastwards a mile and you'll see it (meaning if you go
consequence using the future construction with will (or eastwards a mile, you will see it).
Although the consequence in rst conditional sentences
is usually expressed using the will (or shall) future (usu-
If you make a mistake, someone ally the simple future, though future progressive, future
will let you know. perfect and future perfect progressive are used as appro-
If he asks me, I will/shall consider priate), other variations are also possible it may take
his proposal carefully. the form of an imperative, it may use another modal verb
that can have future meaning, or it may be expressed as
a deduction about present or past time (consequent on a
The use of present tense in dependent clauses with future
possible future event):
time reference is not conned to condition clauses; it also
occurs in various temporal and relative clauses (as soon
as he arrives; take the rst train that comes; etc.), as de- If it rains this afternoon, come
scribed under Uses of English verb forms Dependent round to my place! (imperative)
clauses. If it rains this afternoon, we
can/could/should/may/might nd
The present tense used in the condition clause may take
somewhere to shelter. (other
the form of the simple present as in the above examples,
or the present progressive, present perfect or present per-
fect progressive as appropriate (according to general prin- If it rains this afternoon, then
ciples for uses of English verb forms): yesterdays weather forecast was
wrong. (deduction about the past)
If it rains this afternoon, your gar-
If he is sleeping when we arrive, we den party is doomed. (deduction
shan't wake him. (present progres- placed in the present)
Will you wake him if he hasn't
A particular case involves a condition clause that ex-
stirred by 10 o'clock? (present
presses a goal (this is often done using the be + to con-
struction, the going-to future or the verb want), and the
If you have been working for more main clause expresses something that is necessary for the
than ten hours when he returns, he achievement of that goal, usually using a modal verb of
will take your place. (present per- necessity or obligation. In this case it is eectively the
fect progressive) main clause, rather than the dependent condition clause,
that expresses a condition.
The condition can also be expressed using the modal verb
should. This form can be used to make an inverted con- If we want to succeed, we have to
dition clause without a conjunction: try harder.
2.4 Third conditional 3

If you are to get your pocket money, the absence of .... For clauses with if only, see Uses of
you must start behaving yourself. English verb forms Expressions of wish.
For the possible use of would or could in the condition
As noted in the following section, it may be possible to clause as well, see Use of will and would in condition
express a statement about a hypothetical future situation clauses below.
using either the rst or second conditional pattern, with
little specic dierence in meaning. The conditional construction of the main clause is usu-
ally the simple conditional; sometimes the conditional
progressive (e.g. would be waiting) is used. Occasion-
2.3 Second conditional ally, with a rst person subject, the auxiliary would is re-
placed by should (similarly to the way will is replaced by
Second conditional or conditional II refers to a pat- shall). Also, would may be replaced by another appro-
tern used to describe hypothetical, typically counterfac- priate modal: could, should, might.
tual situations with a present or future time frame (for past When referring to hypothetical future circumstance,
time frames the third conditional is used). In the normal there may be little dierence in meaning between the rst
form of the second conditional, the condition clause is in and second conditional (factual vs. counterfactual, realis
the past tense (although it does not have past meaning), vs. irrealis). The following two sentences have similar
and the consequence is expressed using the conditional meaning, although the second (with the second condi-
construction with the auxiliary would: tional) implies less likelihood that the condition will be
If I liked parties, I would attend
more of them. If you leave now, you will still catch
If it rained tomorrow, people would your train.
dance in the street.
If you left now, you would still
catch your train.
The past tense (simple past or past progressive) of the
condition clause is historically the past subjunctive. In
Notice that in indirect speech reported in the past tense,
modern English this is identical to the past indicative, ex-
the rst conditional naturally changes to the second:
cept in the rst and third persons singular of the verb be,
where the indicative is was and the subjunctive were; was
is sometimes used as a colloquialism (were otherwise pre- She'll kill me if she nds out.
ferred), although the phrase if I were you is common in He said I would kill him if I found
colloquial language. For more details see English sub- out.
junctive Use of the past subjunctive.

If I (he, she, it) were rich, there 2.4 Third conditional

would be plenty of money available
for this project. Third conditional or conditional III is a pattern used
to refer to hypothetical situations in a past time frame,
If I (he, she, it) were speaking, you
generally counterfactual (or at least presented as counter-
would not be allowed to interrupt
factual). Here the condition clause is in the past perfect,
like that.
and the consequence is expressed using the conditional
When were is the verb of the condition clause, it can be
used to make an inverted condition clause without a con-
junction. If the condition clause uses the past tense of an- If you had called me, I would have
other verb, it may be replaced by the auxiliary construc- come.
tion were to + innitive (particularly if it has hypothetical Would he have succeeded if I had
future reference); if this is done, then inversion can be helped him?
applied here too:
It is possible for the usual auxiliary construction to be re-
If I were rich, ... / If I were to be placed with were to have + past participle. That used, the
rich, ... / Were I (to be) rich, ... above examples can be written as such:
If I ew, ... / If I were to y, ... /
Were I to y, ... If you were to have called me, I
would have come.
Another possible pattern is if it weren't for... (inverted Would he have succeeded if I were
form: were it not for ...), which means something like in to have helped him?

The condition clause can undergo inversion, with omis- 2.5.1 Contradiction between the zero and rst con-
sion of the conjunction: ditional.

Had you called me, I would have There is a problem when the condition refers to the
come. / Were you to have called present, but the consequence to the future, as in these
me, I would have come. examples:
Would he have succeeded had I
helped him? / Would he have suc- If you are young, you will like that book. (I do not
ceeded were I to have helped him? know how old you are.)
If you are already so good at it, you will be a master
Another possible pattern (similar to that mentioned under in one year.
the second conditional) is if it hadn't been for... (inverted
form: had it not been for ...), which means something like If he is already here, you will nd him.
in the absence of ..., with past reference. For clauses
with if only, see Uses of English verb forms Expressions Formally, every sentence above looks like the rst condi-
of wish. tional, with the condition having future meaning,[2] which
was not our intention. Generally, context and auxiliary
For the possible use of would in the condition clause, see
words like already, at present, etc. sometimes are
Use of will and would in condition clauses. Occasion-
enough to inform us that the condition has present mean-
ally, with a rst person subject, would is replaced with
ing, but sometimes are not, which leads to ambiguity, for
should. In the main clause, the auxiliary would can be
replaced by could or might, as described for the second
If you do it now, you will not have to do it later.
If only one of the two clauses has past reference, a mixed
conditional pattern (see below) is used. The word now can be interpreted as at present or in
the immediate future. Hence the condition can refer
both to the present and future.
2.5 Mixed conditional
Mixed conditional usually refers to a mixture of the sec-
ond and third conditionals (the counterfactual patterns). 3 Use of will and would in condi-
Here either the condition or the consequence, but not tion clauses
both, has a past time reference.
When the condition refers to the past, but the conse- As noted above regarding the rst conditional, will (or
quence to the present, the condition clause is in the past shall) is not normally used to mark future time reference
perfect (as with the third conditional), while the main in a condition clause; instead an ordinary present tense is
clause is in the conditional mood as in the second condi- used:
tional (i.e. simple conditional or conditional progressive,
but not conditional perfect). If she wins (not: will win) tomor-
row, I'll eat my hat.
If you had done your job properly,
we wouldn't be in this mess now. However, there are certain situations where will can ap-
If I hadn't married Kelly, I wouldn't pear in a condition clause. One type of situation is re-
be living in Scotland now. ferred to above under zero conditional, where will ex-
presses futurity, but the sentence as a whole expresses
When the consequence refers to the past, but the con- factual implication rather than a potential future circum-
dition is not expressed as being limited to the past, the stance: If aspirins will cure it, I'll take a couple tonight
condition clause is expressed as in the second conditional (the taking is not a consequence of the curing, but a con-
(past, but not past perfect), while the main clause is in the sequence of the expectation that they will cure).
conditional perfect as in the third conditional: More commonly, will appears in condition clauses where
it has a modal meaning, rather than marking the future.
If we were soldiers, we wouldn't (See uses of will.) Relevant meanings include willingness,
have done it like that. persistence, or strong disapproval [1][3][4]

Other variations on the respective clause patterns are pos- If you will excuse me, I think I will
sible, as used accordingly in the second and third condi- slip into something more comfort-
tionals. able. (willingness)

If you will keep all the windows I'll make a pot of tea if you would
shut, of course you'll get headaches. like some.
(persistence) Please help Mrs Brown if you
A: The zookeeper was really an- could.
noyed with me.
B: Well, if you will throw stones For the use of should in future condition clauses, see un-
at the animals, its not surprising! der rst conditional.
(strong disapproval)

In the second and third sentences will is stressed, and can- 4 Inversion in condition clauses
not be contracted to "'ll.
Similarly, would is not generally used in the condition Certain condition clauses (if-clauses) can be cast without
clauses of the counterfactual patterns (second and third any conjunction such as if or unless, instead using subject
conditional) in standard English: auxiliary inversion to indicate their meaning.
The principal constructions are as follows:
If I knew (not: would know) him, I
would talk to him. In the rst conditional (where the condition clause
If you had written (not: would have expresses a possible future condition), inversion can
written), it would have put my mind be applied to the form of the condition clause con-
at rest. structed using should:

However, some varieties of English regularly use would If you feel hungry, ... (usual con-
(contracted to 'd) and would have ('d have) in counterfac- dition clause; present tense with fu-
tual condition clauses, although this is often considered ture meaning)
non-standard: If you should feel hungry, ...
(should form of the condition
If you'd leave (standard: you left) clause)
now, you'd be on time. Should you feel hungry, ... (in-
If you'd have told (standard: you verted form)
had told) me, we could've done
something about it. In the second conditional (where the condition
clause expresses an unlikely or counterfactual
Such use of would is widespread especially in spoken present/future condition; this may also occur in the
American English in all sectors of society. It is not usu- mixed conditional), inversion is possible in the case
ally found in more formal writing; however some sources where the verb is were the past subjunctive:
describe it as acceptable US English, no longer labeling
it colloquial.[5][6] If she were here, ... (usual condition
There are also cases where would can appear in the con- clause)
dition clause in British English too, but these can be con- Were she here, ...(inverted form)
sidered to be modal uses of would, indicating willingness:
As a special case of the above, when a condition
If you would listen to me once clause based on a dierent verb (normally with
in a while, you might learn some- hypothetical future reference) is formulated using
thing.[4][7] the were to construction, inversion is again possible
(provided were and not was is used):
Also, in cases where the event of the if-clause follows
that of the main clause, use of would in the if-clause is If you shot, ... (usual condition
standard usage (this is similar to the aspirin example given clause; past tense)
above for will): If you were to shoot, ... (were to
If it would make Bill happy, I Were you to shoot, ... (inverted
would give him the money.[7] form)

Would like and could are sometimes used in condition In the third conditional (where the condition clause
clauses for politeness: expresses a counterfactual past condition; this may

also occur in the mixed conditional), the condition

clause formed with the auxiliary had can be in-

If he had written, ... (usual condi-

tion clause; past perfect)
Had he written, ... (inverted form)

The above can be written with the were to have con-

struction, inversion once again possible.

If he were to have written, ... (were

to have construction)
Were he to have written, ... (in-
verted form)

Inversion is also possible when the present subjunctive be

is used (e.g. Be he called on by God... for If he be
called on by God...), but this is archaic usage for con-
dition clauses; it is still occasionally found in dependent
clauses expressing no matter whether ..., e.g. Be they
friend or foe ... (equivalent to Whether they be friend
or foe ...). For similar examples see English subjunctive.

5 References
[1] WILL with IF (further down on the page)


[3] Grammar for CAE and Prociency by Martin Hewings

[4] single forum post (Reliable source

quoted in an online forum, changed slightly here to pre-
vent confusing American speakers with the originals plu-
ral pronoun.) To stress willingness or wish, you can use
would or will in both clauses of the same sentence: If
he would practise more, he would play better. If he will
practise more, he will play better. Both mean the same.
(Based on the examples and explanations from Practical
English Usage, Michael Swan, Oxford)

[5] Learn English - Writing - Amer-

ican and British English - Dierences in usage Condi-
tional would is sometimes used in both clauses of an if-
sentence. This is common in spoken American English.

[6] Pearson Longman, Longman Exams Dictionary, gram-

mar guide: It is possible to use would in both clauses in
US English but not in British English: US: The blockades
wouldn't happen if the police would be rmer with the
strikers. Br: The blockades wouldn't happen if the po-
lice were rmer with the strikers.

[7] The English-Learning and Languages Review, Questions

and Answers. Retrieved 3 December 2012.

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