In this article, I am going to talk about the four conditionals using if in English. I will give examples and explain the zero conditional, first, second and third conditionals. The conditionals have certain rules; once you understand these rules and how to apply them, you will be on your way to a better understanding and usage of the conditionals.
The Zero Conditional
Think of a pot of water on the stove. The following statement is true:
- If you heat water, it boils.
Here we have present simple and present simple. The reaction of boiling is almost simultaneous. Look at this example:
- If it rains and you don’t have an umbrella, you get wet.
The action of getting wet happens instantly if you don’t have anything to protect you from the rain.
In this conditional, things happen more or less at the same time. That is why both parts of the sentence use the present simple. When there is a longer delay between present conditions and the future action, then we use the first conditional.
- If you eat too much chocolate, you get fat.
Here the act of eating too much sugar and fat causes weight gain. It may not happen immediately, but it is a direct consequence of excess chocolate.
The First Conditional
Here, in the if part we have the present simple, and in the next clause “will” and the infinitive:
- If it is a hot day, they will go to the beach.
The condition is that the day is hot, followed by the action in the future of going to the beach. This conditional is far more common than the zero conditional. Why? First you have the condition, then you take the appropriate action in the near future.
Likewise you can turn the conditional into a negative:
- If it isn’t hot, they won’t go to the beach.
Even though the sentence has been turned into a negative, the meaning is the same.
- If her best friend gets married, she will buy an expensive new dress.
The condition here is that her friend gets married. She doesn’t need to buy an expensive new dress unless the wedding takes place. There seems be an inherent hope that the friend will get married, in order to spend money on an expensive dress.
- He will go to Spain on holiday, if he gets some time off work.
The conditional has been turned around. Again, first the person hopes for some time off work, and then plans to take a holiday.
The Second Conditional
- If I had a lot of money, I would spend many years travelling around the world.
The construction here is with the past simple in the if part, and would and the infinitive in the second part of the clause. Again, you can just as easily invert the clause, as you can with all the conditionals:
- I would spend many years travelling around the world, if I had a lot of money.
However, the use of the past simple does not signify a past tense. We are talking about now, today. This conditional is what may also be called a “wish conditional.” Often we talk about seemingly impossible and unlikely situations that we wish could happen.
Look at the next example:
- If I had 20,000 dollars, I could buy a new car.
There is a difference in meaning between the first example and the second. In the first example you are just waiting for someone to hand you enough money for a long trip and then you would be off to buy tickets to start your worldwide voyage. The only thing missing is the money, not the decision to go. In the second example, the verb could means something very different. You could buy a new car because you would have the money, but you could also decide to spend the money in a different way on something completely different.
The Third Conditional
Whilst I call the second conditional the conditional of wish, the third conditional I sometimes call the conditional of regret because it often, but not always, refers back to past missed opportunities or past unfavorable circumstances:
- If I had accepted the job at the investment bank in Geneva, I would have earned a lot of money.
Sometime in the past, I refused a well-paid job and probably now, in the present, I regret not taking it.
The construction here is if and the past perfect, then would have and the past participle. Italian speakers will be able to relate the second and third conditionals to their subjunctive.
- If I had been born in an English speaking country, I wouldn’t have needed English lessons after I left school.
Here, the regret is not being born in a place that already speaks English and having to work hard at English even after school.
- If her mother hadn’t re-married, she wouldn’t have lived so far from her father.
Here, we see another typical example of the third conditional. The circumstances in the past created distance between the girl and her father and there is regret that this situation occurred.
However, in the third conditional, the meaning need not always be one of regret:
- If I hadn’t gone to John’s party, I wouldn’t have met the love of my life.
The meaning is positive in all senses. I went to John’s party and I met the love of my life there. This also shows how a double negative can have positive meaning.
The use of the verb could also appears in the third conditional:
- If he had gone to university, he could have gotten a better job.
Here, the could part talks of a real possibility, but only that. The person saying this statement could already have a good job without going to university and may or may not have gotten a better job even with a university education. However, the obvious interpretation of the sentence talks of a person who believes he would have gotten a better job with more education. As we all know in today’s society, that is not necessarily the case.
To summarize the difference between would and could in the conditionals: the use of would indicates a definite action dependent on the fulfillment of a particular condition, whilst the use of could indicates possibility and choice.
I hope I have offered a clear overview of the conditionals with if in English. I chose to write about this topic also because it is an aspect of grammar that appears in many English examinations. Students need not have too much difficulty with this issue, as long as they understand how the conditionals are formed and when to use them.
- Raymond Murphy, English Grammar in Use: Intermediate