The English Conditional Mood


The English Conditional Mood


Sentences employing the conditional mood generally have two clauses, a main clause and a subordinate clause containing the word ‘if’.  Even though it’s subordinate, the ‘if’ clause often comes first.



 If you’re an auditory learner you will probably like this very helpful video that I found on Youtube.


1.  Zero-type conditionals


Zero-type conditionals use the present tenses in both clauses and are used to talk about facts and to express general truths.


Zero-type conditionals

If clause

Main or conditional clause

If + Present tense Present tense
If water is heated to 100 degrees, it boils.


NB:  The zero-type conditional is used when the result will always happen  You can use these kinds of sentences with specific subjects but the result referred to must always happen , you can’t refer to a specific situation.  NB:  Use the first conditional for specific situations.

If John reads the newspaper, he gets upset.   (This happens every time that he reads the newspaper.)

When people eat too much, they get fat.   (This is always the case.)


Often the ‘if’ can be replaced with ‘when’ without changing the meaning.

Eg.   If I hear thunder, I get scared.   or    When I hear thunder I get scared.

2.   First-type conditionals


First type conditionals use the present tenses in the if clause and the future tense in the main clause.

This conditional refers to future possibilities that are certain or probable.


First-type conditionals

If clause

Main or conditional clause

If + Present tense Future tense
If it’s sunny tomorrow  we’ll go to the beach.

NB:  You can change the order of the ‘if’ and the ‘main’ clause with no change in meaning.  Also, in the main clause you may use any tense, as long as you’re expressing a future action.  Eg.  ‘going to’  –  If you don’t eat your dinner, I’m going to’ get very upset.  Or even the command form in sentences such as ‘If you’ve finished your homework,leave’ it on my desk.


Difference between zero and first conditionals:

If you walk down this road you get muddy feet.    (General fact – will always be the case, perhaps you have to cross a bog that is always wet.)

If you walk down this road you ‘will’ get muddy feet.   (Specific situation, here and now if you walk down this road you’ll get muddy feet but it may not be the case on another day.)

3.  Second-type conditionals


Second type conditionals use the past tense in the if clause and ‘would’ + ‘a verb’.

This conditional is used to speculate about either very unlikely future situations or present and future impossibilities.


Second-type conditionals

If clause

Main or conditional clause

If + Past tense would + verb
If I had time  I would bake a cake.



Some more examples:

  • If they were showing the movie at 8pm, we would go.   (They mustn’t be showing the movie at 8pm.)

  • I’m sure your boss would give you the day off if you asked him.   (I don’t feel confident that you will ask your boss for the day off so rather than use ‘will’ for a likely event I’ll use ‘would’ for an ‘unreal’ or ‘unlikely’ situation.

  • If I were you, I’d tell him to get lost.    (This is a common way to give advice and as it’s impossible for me to be you we need to use this ‘unreal’, ‘impossible’ conditional.)  NB:  Although ‘were’ is the correct form you will often hear ‘was’ being used in these kind of sentences, even by native speakers.


4.   Third-type conditionals


Third type conditionals use the past perfect tense in the if clause and ‘would have’ + ‘a past participle”.

This conditional is used to talk about hypothetical or impossible situations in the past.  It’s very useful for speculating about the past, expressing regrets, making excuses and criticising others.



Third-type conditionals

If clause

Main or conditional clause

If + Past perfect tense would have + past participle
If I had known that you were sick  I would have brought you flowers.


Some more examples:

  • If Johnny had studied harder, he would have passed his exam.

  • If I’d realised you wanted a lift, I’d have picked you up on my way through.

  • The class would have finished on time, if you had behaved better.

NB:   ‘If I had’ can often be shorted to just ‘had’ I”.   Eg.   If I had known that you were sick, …..    Had I known that you were sick …

Mixed conditionals

As you have probably noticed when it comes to grammar rules, they are often broken and these conditional ‘rules’ are no exception.  Although the four conditional forms given above are the most common you will often find that in order to express exactly what we mean we need to ‘mix and match’ a little.

Eg.  If  I want to refer to something that I did not do in the past (and probably wish I did) and the possible effect that this action might have had on the present I will likely use a third-conditional if clause and a second-conditional main clause.

If I had bought the tickets a day earlier, we would be flying first class for the same price.

When you think you’re ready, click the link to practice your knowledge with this game.

And why not see how many of these examples you can get right?

A.   If I eat peanuts, ____________

1)   I would swell up.

2)   I will swell up.

3)   I swell up.

Answer.   3)   I swell up.  This is true for me (a fact) and it happens every time that I eat peanuts (not just on a specific occasion).

B.   If I see her, ________________

1)   I’ll tell her.

2)   I would tell her.

3)   I tell her.

Answer:   1)   I’ll tell her.    This is something that could easily come true, it is a likely future event so the second conditional is the right choice.

C)   If you guys do the dishes, _____________

1)   I would cook the dinner.

2)   I will cook the dinner.

3)   I cook the dinner.

Answer:   2)   I will cook the dinner.   This is a specific situation so you can’t use a zero conditional and because it uses the present tense in the ‘if clause’ the only other option is a second conditional using a future tense.


D)    If you had gone to the market, _________________

1)   You will see Joshua selling apples.

2)   You would see Joshua selling apples.

3)   You would have seen Joshua selling apples.

Answer:   3)   When you see ‘had’ in the ‘if clause’ and it refers to a hypothetical or impossible situation in the past you will need to use a third conditional ‘would have + past participle’ in the main clause.


CLick here to practice what you’ve learnt with these great exercises from Agenda Web.