Unless you leave now… : Using conditionals (2)

wooden fence with a sign reading 'Private Property: No Entry'
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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 😊

25 thoughts on “Unless you leave now… : Using conditionals (2)

  1. Alla

    Hello) I have read that “If I was” is used for some real situation, and “If I were” for the unreal one. E.g. If I were you, I would go there. If I was rude, I would apologize. Is that correct? Thank you)

    1. Liz Walter

      That’s an interesting rule, thank you! If you stick to it, you’ll should always be fine. You definitely need ‘was’ for things that actually happened. However, it is also common to hear ‘was’ in unreal situations, and this is considered fine in everything except very formal or literary language.

      1. Liz Walter

        Bad-tempered. (There is a learner’s dictionary on this site, with clear explanations of all the words you need 🙂 )

  2. Rafael

    At last, I’ve found a short and sweet explanation about the use of was/were with the second conditional.

    I’ve been consistently taught that the former was wrongly used, but now it’s crystal-clear that, in informal register and with the third person, it is totally correct. Had I come across this entry before I would have spared myself an awful lot of confusion.

    Thank you so much, and hats off to you!!!

  3. Denis

    This subject is indeed rather topical for many English learners. Thanks a million for breaking it down.
    Just so no-one’s in any doubt…
    You’re saying ‘we often use other modal verbs such as can, might or should instead of will’, and then right below this statement, you give these example sentences:
    ‘Greg might be happier if he lived in the countryside.’
    ‘If she hadn’t been driving so fast, the accident might not have happened.’
    The way I see it, these two examples are irrelevant to the statement because they are second and third conditional sentences respectively, where the modal will cannot be used at all.

    Then, you also say ‘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’. However, we can use could/couldn’t for first conditionals. Moreover, and you slightly pointed that out just before, we can also use shall/shan’t, should/shouldn’t or would/wouldn’t instead of will/won’t for first conditionals.
    It’s important to remember that we do not use will/won’t for second and third conditionals respectively.

  4. Margarita

    Thanks a lot for the article!!!

    Liz, could you please explain this conversation, I’ve read in a book the other day.

    Question: What if we were never to be together again?
    Answer: That was never going to happen.

    I can’t understand the rule applied in the answer… Is this conditional or not?

    Thanks in advance!

    1. Liz Walter

      No, the question is a conditional (in a way it’s half a conditional sentence because it really means ‘What would happen if we were never to be together again?’, but the answer isn’t. It might help if you think of the paraphrase: ‘That was always impossible.’

    2. These are some lines in a song by Lily Allen with some good conditional sentences…hope everyone enjoys them.

      Believe me when I tell you that I never wanna see you again
      And please can you stop calling cause it’s getting really boring
      And I’ve told you I don’t want to be friends
      Believe me when I tell you that I never wanna see you again
      How on earth could I be any more obvious?
      It never really did and now it’s never gonna happen
      With the two of us

  5. Liz Walter

    Hi Shina, I’m not quite sure what you are asking, but ‘would’ is used in many different ways. If you say ‘I would like a cup of coffee’, that’s present tense, but if you say ‘He said he would come to the party’, that’s a past form of ‘will’.

  6. Andy Lau

    I was dealing a minutes of a meeting last week. He reported that the company makes/made a loss in the last quarter. What is the difference between makes and made is this sentence?

    1. Liz Walter

      ‘Makes’ is incorrect because it is a present tense. The ‘last quarter’ is in the past, so it has to be ‘made’.

  7. Paola

    Dear Liz,
    i would like to ask you about the use of “provided / given that” instead of if in conditional sentences.Thank you in advanced.I love this blig.

    1. Liz Walter

      ‘Provided that’ means ‘only if’. It’s most commonly used with a present tense: ‘We’ll be there at six provided that the train comes on time.’ ‘Given that’ means ‘considering the fact that’ – it’s not a conditional and can be used with any tense: ‘Louis should know about Rome, given that he lived there for almost ten years.’

  8. Sandra

    Thanks a lot for the article! It really helped me out!

    At school, I studied mixed conditional too, which has 2 types: one’s talking if he changed sth in the past, then the present would change and in the other type reversed (if present sth, then past sth). I found it’s too hard to remember, so I’m just asking (would you mind explaining that in a shortened way for me to remember it better, please?

    Sorry if I bothered you :<

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