Your Ultimate Guide to Conditionals in English

Guide to English Conditionals

Conditionals are the perfect example of those topics that you love and hate at the same time. 

Every time I reflect on the lessons I struggled with the most while learning English, conditionals rank among my top five. At first glance, they can be overwhelming. It’s easy to get confused by all the different tenses and the functions.

But don’t worry, once you get started, you’ll find out it’s simpler than it seems. And you’ll end up loving them as much as I do now.  

In today’s post, we’ll explore:

  • What are conditionals?

  • Structure of conditionals

  • Types of conditionals

  • Why are conditionals important?

  • Why do most learners avoid them?

As you can see, you’ll get enough insight into the different types and rules, and we’ll also examine why they’re important. 

So what are conditionals?

Simply put, conditionals are structures that express a statement and its possible outcome. This means that under a particular condition, something happens (present or future) or might have happened (past).

Let’s look at an example:

  • “If we don’t get things done by the end of the day, we’ll miss the deadline.”

Can you spot the condition and the result in this example?

That’s right, the if-clause states the condition and its result is in the clause after the comma. 

Conditional structures

Conditionals are composed of a Main Clause and a Conditional Clause

 The conditional clause is called subordinate as it’s dependent on the main clause to be complete. When the conditional clause goes first in the sentence, it takes a comma. Otherwise, the comma is omitted.

  • If-clause (condition), + main clause (outcome).

    “If my plane gets delayed, I won’t make it on time for the meeting.”

  • Main clause (outcome) + if-clause (condition)

    “I won’t make it on time for the meeting if my plane gets delayed.”


Types of conditionals

Conditionals vary according to whether they refer to the present, past, or future time, as well as real or imaginary situations. 

Some conditional sentences express facts or possibilities, whereas others describe events that are unlikely or impossible to happen. 

In practical terms, we use conditionals in the following situations:

  1. Situations that are always true

  2. Situations that are possible

  3. Current situations that are imaginary

  4. Past situations that are imaginary

  5. Mixed conditionals

Using the right structure for each type is important because they convey varying meanings. Choosing a verb tense over another can make a huge difference. 

Let’s see the different cases in detail. 

Situations that are always true

Or technically speaking, zero conditionals. 

Unlike the other types, in this case we find the same tense in both clauses. Plus, the time reference is straightforward.

The zero conditional is common with facts, general truths, or conditions that are always true. That’s why it’s mainly found in scientific statements. 

In the following examples, both the main and the conditional clause, are in the present simple:

  • “If you heat water at 100°, it boils.”


  •  “If they don't get enough water, plants die.”

You’ve probably come across examples like those before.

Now, if your intention is to give an instruction, you can use an imperative in the main clause. 

  • “If you need to make an appointment, call before 5pm.”

But clauses do not need to be in the present simple exclusively for them to fall under this classification. When we’re not talking about unreal situations, we use the same tense with ‘if’ as with other conjunctions. Present tenses are used to talk about the present, past tenses to the past, etc. For instance,

  • “If she didn’t come to work yesterday, she was probably ill.”

  • “Since she didn’t come to work yesterday, she was probably ill.”

For situations that are possible 

This is perhaps the most frequent and the easiest type of conditional structure. We use it for future and possible predictions/plans. You’ll identify it as the first conditional in English language coursebooks. 

In its typical form, we find:

  • if + present simple. will/be going to + base verb

  • “If I’m free before 7pm, I will give you a call.”

But other variants are also possible:

  • if + present simple, modal verb (might/can/could) + base verb

  • “If it’s not too late, I can drop by your place later.”

In this example, the modal verb can weakens the future outcome of the condition. What we might understand from the context is that the speaker is suggesting a plan, and the modal verb is adding the tentative meaning.


Current situations that are imaginary

This equates to the second conditional. It refers to a hypothetical present situation. The following examples might explain it better: 

  • “If you went to bed earlier, you would have more energy in the morning.”

    (The hypothetical situation is going to bed earlier.)

  • “If I were you, I would decline the job offer.”

    (Impossible situation because of course I’m not you!) 

NOTE: You might be wondering why I used “were” instead of “was” in the second example. When talking about hypothetical situations, we use ‘were’ even for the first person and the third person singular (i.e., he, she, it). This rule is only valid in this context of an imaginary situation, otherwise use ‘was’ and ‘were’ in the normal way.

Now, how do we structure this conditional?

  • If + past simple, would + base verb

But there’s a catch! Although the past simple is used, the meaning has nothing to do with the past.

Thus, the first example illustrates a hypothetical present; I’m speculating on something unlikely, yet possible. 

Whereas the second one, highlights a counterfactual present, an impossibility.

But remember that it’s also possible to come across conditionals where the hypothesis refers to the future:

  • “If I were to travel, it would be to Greece.” (future)

So, what’s the most important thing to remember here? Despite its structure, it does not refer to the past. We use the past here to distance our language from reality.

Past situations that are imaginary

When do we use this structure? To talk about situations in the past that didn’t happen or didn’t go as expected. Hence, we’re dealing with a counterfactual past.

The form is:

  • If + past perfect, would/could/might + have + past participle

  • “If I had chosen to do some extra shifts, I would have saved enough money for the holidays.”

What we understand from this sentence is that the speaker didn’t choose to work extra hours, so they didn’t save enough money for the holidays. The message is clearly that of a regret.

In case you were wondering, you’ll find it in grammar books as the third conditional.  

Comparing conditionals

Now that we’ve covered some ground on conditionals, I think it’s time to compare. Can you spot the differences in meanings among these sentences?  

  • “I will give you a call if I’m free before 7pm.” (future realistic prediction)

  • “I would give you a call if I were free before 7pm.” (Hypothetical situation, I’m not usually free before 7pm)

  • “I would have given you call if I had been free before 7pm.” (Imaginary Past, I didn’t call because I wasn’t free before that time)

Mixed conditionals 

Wait! there’s still one more to go. 

Because if we stuck to the traditional types of conditionals, we would be unequipped to understand or express the extensive variety of forms and meanings that exist in English. 

So, let’s analyze these examples:

  1. “If she had followed my advice, she wouldn’t be in this difficult situation.”

  2. “If I had gone to bed earlier, I wouldn’t be so sleepy now.”

Under which category would you place them? You probably noticed there’s an interesting mixture of tenses. With these sentences, the condition is set in the past, whereas the outcome is actually in the present. This is what we call mixed conditionals.  

Paraphrasing is always a good idea to clear doubts:

  1. “She didn’t follow my advice, so she’s in a difficult situation now.”

  2. “I didn’t go to bed early, so I’m sleepy now.”


Why are conditionals important?

Whenever I’m teaching, I always try to answer this question because I do believe that in order to embrace something, we need to know why it’s relevant to us.

So here’s my answer: conditionals are important because we need them to communicate creatively.

Let me elaborate on this. 

Speaking a foreign language makes me feel empowered. Especially when I’m free to express myself with creativity and playfulness. As language learners, one of the strongest barriers we face is the inability to communicate an idea the way we had it in mind. I’m sure you can relate to this frustration.

Well, the good news is mastering conditionals will broaden your possibilities for imaginative and speculative expression.

Where’s the fun in sticking to the same linguistic structures over and over again? Learning varying sentence constructions and mixing them up will make your writing smoother and your spoken English more natural. 

You will feel that you’re falling short on the language if you’re unable to express regrets, tentative ideas, imaginary situations or even reflect on your actions and choices.

It’s time to spice up your English and get out of your comfort zone.  

So don’t be afraid to raise the bar, you got this!

Why do most learners avoid conditionals when communicating?

From my experience, I’ve noticed that conditionals are one of the last topics learners feel comfortable using, regardless of how long they’d been studying the language. 

For starters, conditionals can be challenging because they involve using all verb tenses, mixing them up and sometimes, doing all that, spontaneously. 

In a way, you might feel your entire handling of the language is put to test. And you’re right!

If it makes you feel any better, even the most competent speakers stumble along the way when choosing the right conditional structure to convey the intended meaning. Indeed, it’s sort of an intimidating task as it’s too easy to get lost in the middle of it.

On top of that, the meanings of conditional sentences are not straightforward; something I find very puzzling. This is because verb forms often do not express time in the conventional way. 

In order words, you can expect the past simple to express a hypothetical situation in the present or an improbable event in the future. Or you may find the past perfect expressing a situation for which you expected a different outcome in the past. And what about the present in some conditionals that actually denotes future time?

Let’s illustrate this with examples: 

  • “If I leave at 9pm, I’ll get to the airport on time.” (Future condition: providing that I leave at 9pm, I’ll make it on time)

  • “If I had enough time and money, I’d travel around the world.” (Hypothetical situation in the present = I don’t have time or money, so I don’t travel around the world)

  • “I would have tried harder, if I had known there was a huge prize.” (Impossible past situation = I regret the fact that I didn’t try harder)

Learning conditionals can be challenging, but challenges are good! By facing and overcoming challenges, you bring out your best and once you see the results, you’ll be thrilled!


We’ve come a long way on conditionals today! 

If you are struggling with conditionals, I hope this has helped. Conditionals are fundamental elements in natural speech. 

And If you’re wondering where to start, I’d suggest setting goals based on your personal learning pace. Do not try to learn them all at once, you will get confused otherwise. 

As I always say: Yes, it might be difficult but it’s an investment in your education, so it’s definitely worth the effort.

“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” ―Theodore Roosevelt


Now, try these exercises to level up!

First Conditional

Complete these sentences.

  1. I’ll be happy if…

  2. I’ll be shocked if…

  3. I’ll be sorry if…

First or Second Conditional?

Choose the correct verb forms.

  1. If you (come/came) late again, you will lose your job.

  2. If I’m free on the weekend, I (will/would) go to the beach.

  3. I know she’ll feel better if she (works/worked) less.

  4. If we (live/lived) closer to the city, life would be easier.

  5. If I won the lottery, I (will/would) give you half the money.

Third conditional

Put in the correct verb forms.

  1. If I (know) they were coming, I (invite) more people.

  2. It (be) better, if you (ask) me for help.

  3. You (win) if you (run) faster.

  4. If (be) in trouble, if she (help) me.

  5. You (pass) your test, if (studied) harder.



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About the writer

Sol is an English teacher and a self-professed grammar geek. As a writer for In English With Love, her mission is to create content that will help encourage and inspire English learners.

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