Conditional Forms


Using Conditionals

Conditional forms are used in different ways and we can use them to talk about present, future and past possibilities.

We’ll take a look here at the variety of conditional forms we can use and how we use them.

Basic Conditionals: Zero & 1st

The first type of conditionals we are going to use look at what are called the zero and first conditionals.

The zero conditional is not really a condition , even though we use the word if, and it describes something that is true. For example.

  • If you heat ice, it melts.
  • If you live in certain northern European countries, you need to have warm clothes in the winter.

Both of these examples describe situations the people believe are true and there is no real condition.

We can describe the grammar of these sentences like this.

Zero conditional: If + present form , present form

In the first conditional one part of the sentence considers the condition and predicts the result or consequence of this activity. We usually think about present or future situations when we use this form. For example.

  • If I see Anders, I will tell him you want to speak to him.
  • If the team plays badly on Saturday again, they will lose.

In these examples the speaker is making a prediction and describing what they believe will happen because of this.

We can describe the grammar of these sentences as follows

1st conditional: If + present form, future form

2nd Conditionals

The second conditional is a type of past conditional. When we use this form we are imagining a different situation and we are usually thinking of a present situation. Let’s look at some examples of how we construct this.

  • If I knew the answer, I would tell you.   (but I don’t know it)
  • If I won the lottery, I could travel the world.  (I haven’t won the lottery)
  • If I spoke better English, I might get a better job.  (I don’t speak such good English)

As you can see from the examples we can use different modal verb forms. Would is the most common form but we can also use could, may and might. We can describe the grammar of these sentences this way.

2nd conditional: If + past form, modal verb

3rd Conditionals

The third conditional refers to activities or actions that have finished. When we use this form we understand that it’s impossible to change these actions. This form is used to describe a possible different result to a situation. As with the 2nd conditional we also use modal verbs. Let’s look at some examples.

  • If I hadn’t got up late, I could have caught the early bus.
  • If Juan had studied more, he would have passed his exam.
  • If Lucia had spent more time in Paris, she might have gone to the Palace of Versailles.

The grammar of this conditional form is quite complex and we need to use the third form of verbs, the past participle or p.p.

3rd conditional: If + past perfect form, modal verb + have + p.p.

There is another way we can write this type of conditional form by using the word had in the first part of the condition. Let’s look at how this changes one of the example sentences.

Had Lucia spent more time in Paris, she might have gone to the Palace of Versailles.

To create this example we don’t use the word if and we also put had at the beginning of the sentence. This version of 3rd conditional is not common and it’s also very formal. However, it is possible to find these type of examples in exam exercises.

Mixed Conditionals

We can also mix different parts of the conditionals. Sometimes we don’t just want to talk about past activities like the third conditional. We might want to think about how past activities affected the present. Let’s look at an example of this.

If I hadn’t lost my lottery ticket, I would be rich now.

This example has a combination of 3rd conditional and 2nd conditional. Here we are thinking about something that happened in the past and which could have a possible effect now. Let’s look at another example.

If my parents told you to be there at six, they will be home at 6.

This sentence is a combination of a second conditional and a first conditional. In this situation the person is imagining a different present tense and predicting a result.

These are two common examples that we use and there are many other ways to do this. The form you choose depends how you want to communicate information in the condition. Even so, these forms are not very common but sometimes be found in exams.

Alternative words For If

Finally, there are a number of other words and expressions, which have the same meaning, we can use instead of the word if. When we use these it doesn’t change the grammar of the sentence.

Let’s look at some examples of this.

As long as you finish the report today, your boss will be happy.

We can also use some more formal ways of replacing if.

  • Provided that  (you finish …)
  • Providing that (you finish …)
  • On condition that (you finish …)

We can also use a word like unless which means if not and it does not use any negative verbs.

Unless you are really sick, you need to go to school tomorrow.

NOTE: The word when also uses the same grammar as these types of if forms. For example

When I finish, I will call you.

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Conditional Forms

While conditional forms can also express an unlikely present we are concentrating on ideas that refer to the past here. 

The first of these is the 3rd conditional. While we have a typical structure, as follows below here, there are other ways to express the same idea.  

Let’s look at some examples

This is the standard if + past perfect form, modal + have + p.p. structure.  

  • If you hadn’t helped me with the report , I would have been here all night.

We can also use inversion,  a structure we can use  to show formality.

  • Had you not helped me with the report , I would have been here all night.

 Further forms that can be used as well as inversion are were + for or but for.

  • Had it not been for your help me with the report , I would have been here all night.
  • Were it not for your help/your helping me with the report , I would have been here all night.
  • But for your help with the report , would have been here all night.

Speculation & Criticism

Another way we discuss the unreal past is by offering opinions on how or why past events occurred.  Two ways we do that are by speculating about it or by criticising past actions. 

These types of forms mean that a speaker is offering a more personal view of the situation.


  • I shouldn’t have stayed up so late last night, I’m exhausted.
  • What were you doing running onto the road? You could have been killed.
  • You needn’t have washed the dishes. I would’ve put them in the dishwasher.
  • There was no need to be so rude. She just asked you a simple question. 

As you can see, these examples do refer to real past situations but as they are proposing alternatives and speculating we can view them in the same way as the more typical conditional forms.

Regrets & Possibilities

Regrets and talking about past possibilities are another way to reflect on the unreal past.

The most typical of these are the use of wish and if only.  


  • I wish you had talked to me first before buying that car.
  • If only we had got there sooner, the accident would never have happened. 
  • You should have talked to me first before buying that car.

These two forms generally have much the same meaning although if only has a slightly stronger meaning. We can also see how should have + p.p. is possible with the same general sense of regret. 

Wish and if only can also be different in meaning.

  • If only we had seen the car coming, we could have braked sooner. (regret)
  • I wish we’d known you were coming. (wish)


When we look at preferences we are  at two basic forms rather and prefer. Both, of course, refer to the present but we can also use them as a way of commenting on past preferences.   

The grammar for both is different but the meaning is a type of regret or criticism.



  • I would rather not have fired him but I had no choice given his consistently poor performance. 
  • I would rather you hadn’t told her we we were coming. I wanted it to be a surprise.

An alternative to would rather is would sooner and it is used with exactly same structure as would rather.


I would sooner not have fired him but I had no choice given his consistently poor performance. 



  • I would prefer not to have fired him but I had no choice given his consistently poor performance. 
  • I would prefer (if) you hadn’t told her we we were coming. I wanted it to be a surprise.

Other Unreal Past Structures

Finally, there are a number of expressions which talk about things that should be happening. 

These forms use a past form structure and typically use expressions with It’s time.

Example: It’s time we were going.

This example suggests it’s past the time to do something.  We can use about and high for further emphasis.

  • It’s high time you got a job.
  • It’s about time they fired him, he was a terrible manager.

About time can also be used to show irritation, anger or relief about a situation. The general meaning of the expression in this case is finally.

  • Hi Mum, I’m home.
  • About time! Where have you been? 
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