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Conditional sentences.

How to make the zero, first, second and third conditionals in English.

Structure of the zero conditional.

1) If + subject + verb in present simple (comma) / subject + verb in present simple.

If you heat ice, it melts.

or,

2) Subject + verb in present simple / if + subject + verb in present simple.

Ice melts if you heat it.

Explanation.

The zero conditional is often used for (scientific) facts. There is no idea of something happening in the future:

If you heat magnesium, it burns with a white flame.

It is also used for discussing something that happens habitually:

If you leave the door open, the cat comes in.
If I sleep too much in the afternoon, I get a headache.
If I go jogging; I always feel better later.
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Structure of the first conditional.

1) If + subject + verb in present simple* (comma) / subject + will, can, may, might, must, going to + infinitive.

(*If + subject + can / must / going to, is also possible, eg. "If I can go out tonight, I will go to the cinema".)

If I go out tonight, I will go to the cinema.

or,

2) Subject + will, can, may, might, must, going to + infinitive / if + subject + verb in present simple.

I will go to the cinema if I go out tonight.

Explanation.

The first conditional is used to talk about a future situation we think will very probably happen. With reference to the example above, I think we will go out tonight and so I'll go to the cinema. More examples:

If I get that job, I'll buy a new car. (I think I'll get the job.)
If we leave now, we'll be at the beach before lunchtime. (I'm quite certain.)

Sometimes we are so certain that something will happen, we use the first conditional as a warning:

You'll get a cold if you go out without your coat! (I'm warning you.)
She'll break that glass if she doesn't walk slowly. (a warning)     top arrow

 

Structure of the second conditional.

1) If + subject + verb in past simple (comma) / subject + would, could, should, might + infinitive.

If I went out tonight, I would go to the cinema.

or,

2) Subject + would, could, should, might + infinitive / if + subject + verb in past simple.

I would go to the cinema if I went out tonight.

Explanation.

The second conditional is like the first conditional because it can also talks about a future event. However, when we use the second conditional, we think the future event is improbable or the situation may be unreal. In the example above, I would go to the cinema if I went out but I do not think I will go out - perhaps because I am ill or have a lot of work.

For this reason this conditional is used to talk about our dreams, hopes and wishes:

If I won the lottery, I would buy a yacht.
If I could fly, I'd escape from here today.
If you were more intelligent, you would pass your exams.

The past tense in the "if" clause is not really a past as nothing has happened yet; it is a past subjunctive. We do not have a subjunctive form in English so we use the past simple structure.

In the second conditional, it is common to also see the "were" form for first and third person singular although both "was" and "were" are grammatically correct - "was" being more colloquial:

If I were a rich man, I'd build a big house in the country.

Wish and if only (present).

Wish and if only phrases in present tense are similar to the second conditional structure. These words express something that isn't true at the moment but we want it to be so.

If only I had a bigger car. I could take the whole family.

I wish I were/was richer. I would buy a new house.

Also see wish and if only in the past...

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Structure of the third conditional.

1) If + subject + had + past participle (comma) / subject + would, could, should, might + have + past participle.

If I had gone out last night, I would have gone to the cinema.

or,

2) Subject + would, could, should, might + have + past participle / if + subject + had + past participle.

I would have gone to the cinema if I had gone out last night.

Explanation.

The third conditional talks about past events that did not happen the way we expected, desired or they are a hypothetical past. With reference to the above example, it talks about an intention in the past but the real past was different; I did not go out and so I did not go to the cinema. More examples:

If I had studied harder, I would have passed my exams. (But I did not study hard.)
We wouldn't have had an accident if we had driven more slowly. (But we did not drive slowly.)
I might have got that job if I had worn a more elegant suit. (But I did not wear a more elegant suit.)

Wish and if only in the past.

When we use wish and if only in the past, it means we cannot change things and we are sorry we didn't change them. We use a structure similar to the third conditional:

I never read much when I was a child as I was always out playing. I wish I had read more then.

I drank too much last night. If only I hadn't drunk that beer. Now I've got a hangover.

Also see wish and if only in the present...

Exercises on the conditionals...

Exercises on wish and if only...

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