Conditionals are really common in English. If you want to get a good score in IELTS writing or speaking, you will certainly need to have a good understanding of this crucial grammar point.
In this lesson, I’m going to quickly and simply explain conditionals for you.
What are Conditionals?
You might have heard conditionals referred to as “if-clauses.” That’s because one of the two clauses in a conditional sentence will start with the word “if.” For example:
- If it’s raining, we won’t be able to go for a walk later.
- If I’d remembered my wallet, we wouldn’t have missed the film.
You most commonly see “if” in the first clause, but it can be used in the second. In fact, we could easily reverse those example sentences:
- We won’t be able to go for a walk later if it’s raining.
- We wouldn’t have missed the film if I’d remembered my wallet.
There are five types of conditional and we’ll example each of them in turn. They are oddly named: zero conditional, first conditional, second conditional, third conditional, and mixed conditional.
The zero conditional is used to present a fact, such as a scientific reality. For example:
- If you boil water, it evaporates.
The structure for the zero conditional is:
IF + PRESENT SIMPLE, (THEN) PRESENT SIMPLE
Notice that I did not include “then” in my sentence. It is always implied, so we usually omit it, but you can definitely include it:
- If you boil water, then it evaporates.
Here is another example:
- If you stay out in the sun too long, you get burned.
To be honest, the zero conditional is fairly uncommon, so let’s move on to the more useful ones…
The first conditional is used to refer to a likely future outcome. Or, if you use a negative form, it refers to an unlikely outcome. However, in either case you can predict it. For example:
- If the weather is bad, we will cancel the party.
The structure for the first conditional is:
IF + PRESENT SIMPLE, (THEN) FUTURE SIMPLE
Again, remember that we can add or omit “then” and that we can invert the order of clauses in the sentence:
- If the weather is bad, then we will cancel the party.
- We will cancel the party if the weather is bad.
We can also use the negative form, “will not” or “won’t.” For example:
- If the weather is bad, we won’t have a party.
Here are some more examples:
- If she sees this mess, she will be furious.
- If we don’t get there on time, they won’t let us in.
- We will be in trouble if we don’t hand our homework in on time.
The second conditional is used for imagined (and often quite unlikely) situations. For example:
- If I won the lottery, I would buy a private island!
This is a hypothetical situation, which means that it hasn’t happened yet but could (theoretically) happen in the future.
The structure for the second conditional is:
IF + PAST SIMPLE, (THEN) + WOULD/WOULDN’T + VERB
Remember that we very frequently contract “would” to “’d.” For example:
- If I had a million pounds, I’d give half to my parents.
Here, “I’d” means “I would.” Some people get confused because we can also contract “I had” to “I’d” but they are grammatically quite different.
Here are more examples of the second conditional:
- If we sold our car, we would have enough money to go on holiday.
- If she told the truth, people would be more likely to trust her.
- If you were nicer, people wouldn’t avoid you.
The third conditional is used for talking about imagined events in the past. In other words, things that could have happened but didn’t. For example:
- If I’d studied harder, I would’ve gotten a band 8 on my IELTS test!
This means that the person did not get band 8 because they did not study hard enough. The sentence introduces an imaginary past.
The structure for this is:
If + PAST PERFECT, (THEN) WOULD/WOULDN’T + HAVE + PART PARTICIPLE
Here are some more examples:
- If it hadn’t been raining, we would’ve gone for a walk.
- If I hadn’t been sick, I would’ve helped you move house.
- If she hadn’t been so angry, she wouldn’t have crashed her car.
As the name implies, mixed conditionals are a mix of other conditional forms. We can use these to show the present result of a past condition or a hypothetical past given a present condition. In fact, there are quite a lot of variants of the mixed conditional. There’s a useful overview of them here.
Here’s an example of a past / present mixed conditional:
- If she hadn’t stayed up so late, she wouldn’t be so tired.
This is very similar to the third conditional, but because the main clause (“she wouldn’t be so tired”) refers to the present, it is a mixed conditional.
Here’s an example of a present / past mixed conditional:
- If he was taller, he would have been a good basketball player.
This is pretty much the opposite in that the “if” clause is looking at something about the present and the main clause shows a past outcome.
Here are some practice exercises I made for conditionals. I post grammar challenges on my Twitter account every day.