If I had a million dollars: Using conditionals (1)

man lifting his hands up and smiling as money falls around him
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/DigitalVision/GettyImages

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.

24 thoughts on “If I had a million dollars: Using conditionals (1)

  1. Erik Vanlokeren

    In teaching we stick to the rule no WILL nor WOULD in the IF-Clause. If you apply this rule, your conditionals will be correct. If you don’t (regardless the tendency), your conditional stucture will be incorrect.

    1. Dan

      “you don’t (regardless the tendency), your conditional stucture will be incorrect.”

      Careful! I’d say MIGHT be incorrect as it’s certainly possible to have ‘will’ or ‘would’ in a conditional clause.

      1. Liz Walter

        Yes, Dan’s rule is a useful general one, but you can have ‘will’ and ‘would’ in the conditional clause if they are part of the main verb, e.g. I’ll clean the house if you will help me./If my parents would let me, I’d sleep in a tent every night.

  2. Margarita

    Thank you very much to the author! It’s a very clear explanation.
    I’m looking forward to read the next article.
    And I had no idea about the punctuation, by the way.

  3. Jana

    “you can have ‘will’ and ‘would’ in the conditional clause if they are part of the main verb, e.g. I’ll clean the house if you will help me./If my parents would let me, I’d sleep in a tent every night.”

    I’m confused now. Do “I’ll clean the house if you help me” and “I’ll clean the house if you will help me” mean the same or not? Why is one of the sentences then called “conditional” and the other one not?

    1. Liz Walter

      They do, but I’m rather regretting adding that now – it’s a very subtle and advanced point. The second version slightly emphasizes that you mean ‘if you are willing to help me’. If you stick to Erik’s rule (sorry, I said Dan’s above), then you will be sure to be OK!

  4. Dan

    Yes, I agree that Erik’s rule is a useful general one, but – depending on your learners – you may want to go into a bit more detail and/or be ready to account for conditional structures that flout the “rule”. This is especially true if you exclusively use authentic materials with yours learners.

    It’s also worth keeping in mind that those rules are are nothing but an attempt to turn the highly complex system of English tense and aspect into a teachable unit. I remember reading an article where the author had analysed large corpora and identified 365 (IIRC) different combinatorial possibilities. Teaching types 0/1 to three is, therefore, always going to be somewhat reductive.

  5. sabawoonorakzai@gmail.com

    Please help me : would be +past participle .like
    The cost that would be charged .
    The amount that would be earn when goods are sold in a market in a orderly transaction .
    Why in these sentences would be +past participle are used ?

  6. Steph

    Love this article and the discussion 🙂

    As always, to reduce complexity, teachers (and parents, psychologist, priests, coaches, consultants …) give simple, often pictorial rules to those we consider still incompetent. If (or when) they leave the cave 😉 (develop), they might be able to sustain without these rules. Unfortunately, some don’t.

  7. Gabriela Brown

    I’m not understanding what you mean or trying tobsay.i don’t do puzzles well. Mean what you say..and say what you mean

  8. Melissa

    Teachers- If you are looking for a fun activity for students, The Bare Naked Ladies, a 90s band, has a song entirely sung using the second conditional titled “If I had a million dollars…” It is a quick and effective task allowing students to recognize the “I’d contraction in speaking, as well as hammer home 2nd conditional formatting at its most basic level. The tune is exceptionally catchy, so well worth the 5 minutes needed to create a gap text connected to the lyrics. It also easily segues into a discussion about personal goals, their likelihood of success and how that plays a roll in distinguishing between which conditional is needed. Have fun!

  9. Ivy

    How about the following sentence I copy it from the news: “Had I not been vaccinated, I wouldn’t be here” ? It seems to be the third conditional, but simple past tense is used in the second part instead of perfect tense. Is it normal or another tendency?

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