by Liz Walter
We use conditional sentences to talk about what will, might or could happen in various circumstances. There are three main conditionals which we call first, second and third. This post is intended as a brief reminder of how we choose which conditionals to use, and how we form them.
We use the first conditional for things that are likely or possible in the future:
If I pass my exam, my parents will be pleased.
We won’t go to the beach if it rains.
Note that the part of the sentence that starts with if uses a present simple verb and the other part uses will/won’t + infinitive. It is a common mistake to use will/won’t in the wrong part of the sentence, or to use it twice.
If Dad will get the job, we will move to London.
If Dad gets the job, we will move to London.
We use the second conditional for present or future situations that are unlikely or impossible.
If I had a million dollars, I wouldn’t drive a car like this!
What would you do if you lost your job?
The part of the sentence that starts with if uses a past simple verb and the other part uses would/wouldn’t + infinitive. As with the first conditional, make sure you use would/wouldn’t in the correct part of the sentence and only once.
We use the third conditional for events in the past where we imagine things that didn’t happen:
If they had arrived any later, they would have missed the first half of the show.
I would have been very angry if you hadn’t told me the truth.
The part of the sentence that starts with if uses a past perfect verb and the other part uses would have/wouldn’t have + past participle.
It is very common to see and hear the third conditional formed in other ways, for example using would have/wouldn’t have + past participle in both parts of the sentence. People with English as their first language often do this (and my impression is that this tendency is increasing), but if you are writing a formal document or taking an English exam, you should definitely use the ‘standard’ structure I’ve shown above.
Finally, remember the punctuation of conditional sentences! If the if part of the sentence comes first, you need a comma before the other part. No comma is needed if the if part comes second.
This is the basic information you need to use conditionals correctly, but as always in English, there are a few more complex points to learn, and I will cover those in my next post.