If you find conditional sentences frustrating, you are not alone.  You may not be 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:

Non-past real/true

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 or other than will in the main clause to add meaning.

Non-past unreal/untrue

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, perfect modal:        (modal + 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)

These are three very common patterns.  In the next blog, we’ll look at some more examples to demonstrate the use of conditionals.  If you are interested in developing skill with conditionals, you should have a look.


(Featured image by thedigitalartist; pixabay)