by Liz Walter
My last post looked at the basic building blocks of first, second and third conditionals. This post gives a little bit more detail about common variations we can use.
Firstly, there is one other conditional form that I didn’t cover last time – the zero conditional. We use this for things that are always true and we form it with the present simple in both parts of the sentence. We sometimes use when instead of if in these sentences:
If anyone tries to break in, the alarm goes off.
Cream goes off quickly if you leave it in a warm place.
She gets very grumpy when she’s tired.
Another very important point is that we often use other modal verbs such as can, might or should instead of will:
If you go to Madrid, you should definitely visit the Prado.
Greg might be happier if he lived in the countryside.
If she hadn’t been driving so fast, the accident might not have happened.
Remember to use the correct tense of the modal verb, e.g. can/can’t for first conditionals, could/couldn’t + infinitive for second conditionals and could have/couldn’t have + past participle for third conditionals:
We can go inside if it rains.
If I didn’t have a car, I couldn’t do my job.
If they hadn’t been so rude, we could have had a reasonable discussion with them.
Another thing to be aware of is the use of the verb be in second conditionals. Although the most common form with I, he, she and it is was, it is not uncommon to hear the more formal subjunctive form were. In very formal or literary writing, the subjunctive form is probably preferable:
If Anna was/were slightly older, she could travel alone.
If I were a bird, I would sing to you.
Note that we always use were in the phrase If I were you…, which we use to give advice or to warn people:
If I were you, I’d stop spending so much time with those people.
I’d buy the red coat if I were you.
Finally, we can replace if with unless in first conditionals to mean ‘except if’:
Unless you leave now, I’ll call the police.
You’ll never know the truth unless you ask him.
I hope this is all clear. If you have any other questions about conditionals, do let me know in the comments. If I could read your minds, I would know your questions. However, I can’t, so unless you ask, I won’t know what they are 😊