Date Published: Oct. 2, 2016, 4:13 p.m.
If you find conditional sentences frustrating, you are not alone. It is likely that you are not sure which verb form to use to express exactly what you want to say. A good place to start is a comparison of three common patterns, which, unhelpfully, are commonly referred to as the first, second, and third condition. It is much more useful to refer to them as non-past real/true, non-past unreal/ untrue, and past unreal. Let’s look at them:
Time and Truth
If + simple present, (will) simple form:
If the weather is nice, I will go camping (on Friday/ next weekend/ during my break).
If the weather is nice, I go camping (every weekend/ whenever I can).
If the weather is nice, I should/ could/ might go camping.
The word will in the main clause indicates that the person has a specific time in mind. Without will, the speaker is making a statement about general routine behaviour. Also, you can use a modal other than will in the main clause to add meaning.
If + simple past, modal + simple form:
If the weather were nice, I would go camping.
This means that the weather is not nice.
Notice the verb were instead of was in the if-clause. Particularly in writing, the verb were is used regardless of the subject. However, in casual common speech, was is often used with singular subjects.
If she called me, I would take her to a movie.
This is an act of imagining. There is no time context. Her calling me is an unreal situation. Do not be confused into thinking that the simple past refers to the past. Verb tenses work differently with conditional sentences.
If I knew you were in trouble, I would help.
This is also imagining. I know you are in trouble is an unreal situation. Notice, this doesn’t mean that you are not in trouble.
Past unreal/ untrue
If + past perfect, modal + perfect infinitive: (perfect infinitive = have + past participle)
The past perfect in the if-clause indicates a past unreal/ untrue situation.
If the weather had been nice, I would have gone camping.
The weather was not nice, so I did not go camping.
If she had called me, I would have taken her to a movie.
She didn’t call me, so I didn’t take her to a movie.
If I had known you were in trouble, I would/could have helped you.
I didn’t know you were in trouble, so I didn’t help you.
Compare the following two sentences:
If he had slept enough, he wouldn’t have been tired.
If he had slept enough, he wouldn’t be tired.
In the first case, the person was tired at an earlier time because he did not sleep enough. But we don’t know if he is still tired. Maybe he didn’t sleep enough, came to school quite tired, and then slept through the first class at the back of the room. Now, in the second class, he is not tired anymore.
In the second case, the person is definitely still tired. Here we have a present result (tired now) of a past event (didn’t sleep enough)
If Sally goes to the store and buys a lottery ticket for the Saturday night lottery, she might walk out of the store thinking to herself,
“If I win the lottery, I will buy my own helicopter.”
But hopefully she isn’t planning her future on winning the lottery. On a different day, Sally may be at the store and choose not to buy a lottery ticket. She may however, notice the lottery ticket display, and walk out of the store thinking to herself,
“If I won the lottery, I would buy my own helicopter.”
What is the difference between if I win the lottery and if I won the lottery? If your answer is that if I won the lottery is talking about the past, go back and read the previous section, please. Or, just think about it again for a minute…
What’s the difference?
It’s simply that in the first case, Sally has a lottery ticket. She could win the lottery tomorrow. In the second case, Sally does not have a lottery ticket. She can’t win the lottery. She is just imagining winning the lottery.
Saturday comes and goes; unfortunately, Sally did not have the winning ticket. She laments the fact thinking to herself,
“If I had won the lottery, I would have bought my own helicopter.”
Did she buy her own helicopter? No. Why not? Because she didn’t win the lottery.
Let’s recap and add a twist.
Here’s a true statement in the present:
He likes pizza.
Now change it to an untrue conditional statement in the present and add a main clause:
If he didn’t like pizza, he wouldn’t eat it every Friday.
Finally, let’s join the two ideas with the word but to show the contradiction:
He likes pizza, but if he didn’t, he wouldn’t eat it every day.
Notice that when the if-clause refers back to the prior clause, we can drop everything after the auxiliary (like pizza) to avoid repetition. Otherwise, the pattern would be:
He likes pizza, but if he didn’t like pizza, he wouldn’t eat it every day.
which is fine, actually. You might prefer the repetition if you are explaining something to a child or to anyone and you simply have got to make sure there is zero chance for misunderstanding, or when you want to ensure that they are paying attention because the message is so important.
In many cases, however, we don’t.
We often use have and had in conditional sentences, and this leads to confusion:
He has a cold.
If he didn’t have a cold, he would go dancing. (non-past unreal)
He has a cold, but if he didn’t, he would go dancing.
The if-clause is if he didn’t. So, if he didn’t… what? If he didn’t have a cold. But we drop everything after the auxiliary to avoid repetition. This works for all verbs, but with to be it’s a little different:
She is very rich.
If she weren’t very rich, she would need a regular job. (Remember, use were, not was)
She is very rich, but if she weren’t, she would need a regular job. (omit very rich)
So, use did/didn’t or were/weren’t for a shortened if-clause to refer back to a prior clause that refers to the present. No problem, right?
But what about the past? Let’s see:
He didn’t work last night.
If he had worked last night, he would have come home late. (past perfect for the past)
Omit everything after the auxiliary (worked last night):
He didn’t work last night, but if he had, he would have come home late.
He had a cold last weekend.
If he hadn’t had a cold last weekend, he would have come to the party.
He had a cold last weekend, but if he hadn’t, he would have come to the party.
Consider the pattern with to be:
She was tired last night.
If she hadn’t been tired last night, she might have joined us.
She was tired last night, but if she hadn’t been, she might have joined us.
Notice we have to keep been because it’s also an auxiliary. Here it comes before an adjective – tired. We can omit everything after been (tired last night).
Look at it with a past perfect continuous verb in the if-clause:
She was sleeping when I arrived.
If she hadn’t been sleeping when I arrived, I would have been less quiet.
She was sleeping when I arrived, but if she hadn’t been, I would have been less quiet.
We see that again we omit everything after hadn’t been (sleeping when I arrived).
A Short Break
And that is quite enough I think. There is definitely more to say about conditional clauses. In fact, if it will help you recognize an exception, think about the words in the conditional clause I just wrote: you should see something troubling. I wonder if anyone will see and comment on it before we continue with if-clauses right here in a few weeks.
Attached File: practice
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