Conditionals & If Clauses in English Grammar

What is a conditional?

Conditionals are if clauses: they express a situation or condition and its possible result. They are made up of two clauses; the conditional clause and the main clause. The former usually starts with the word if and sets out a condition, while the latter expresses what happens when this condition is fulfilled. The main clause usually contains a modal verb such as will or would.

Example:
If I have time later, I will help you with the presentation.
I’m sorry, if I had time, I would help you.

Technically, there are four types of if-clauses in English grammar: zero, first, second and third. Each one refers to a different context, although we can also construct mixed conditionals.

Example

Now remember, this presentation needs to be great. If the client likes it, they will invest in the company.

Oh no! If I had known that, I wouldn’t have volunteered!

Well, it’s too late to change now. I would start practising if I were you, we need the money!

Zero Conditional: simple present + simple present

Zero conditional if-clauses express things that always happen providing that a certain condition is met.

Examples:
If you leave ice cream in the sun, it melts.
If you heat water, it boils.

Learn more about zero conditional if-clauses in English grammar.

First Conditional: simple present + will

The first conditional, also known as the real conditional, talks about future actions that can only take place under certain conditions.

Examples:
If the client likes our presentation, they will invest in our company.
If the client doesn’t invest, our boss will be angry.

Learn more about the first conditional if-clauses in English grammar.

Second Conditional: simple past + would

The second conditional talks about an unlikely or imaginary event and its result. It is therefore known as the unreal conditional.

Examples:
If I were you, I would start practising.
If she won the lottery, she would buy a luxury mansion.

Learn more about second conditional if-clauses in English grammar.

Third Conditional: past perfect + would have + past participle

The third conditional is also known as the impossible conditional: it looks back at past situations and their outcome and imagines them as different.

Examples:
If we had known about the presentation sooner, we would have prepared more.
I would have been impressed if he had created the plan himself.

Learn more about third conditional if-clauses in English grammar.

Mixed Conditionals

We can mix the second and third conditionals to express an imagined past situation and its imagined present outcome, and vice versa.

Example:
If I had put on suncream this morning, I wouldn’t be sunburned now.
If I spoke Mandarin, I would have done the translation myself.

Learn more about the topic of mixed conditionals in English grammar and test yourself in the exercises.

Inverted Conditionals

We use inverted conditionals in formal contexts. To form these clauses, we flip the order of the subject and the verb. This technique is called inversion.

Examples:
Had we known about the bad reviews, we wouldn’t have made a reservation!

Learn more about inverted conditionals in English grammar.

Conditional Conjunctions

We can use conditional conjunctions instead of if in conditional clauses.

Examples:
Provided that you order by midnight, your order will arrive by Friday.
I won’t leave unless you come with me.

Learn more about the different conditional conjunctions.

Wish/if only

Sentences with wish and if only follow the same grammar patterns as if-clauses in the second and third conditional.

Examples:
I wish I had more time for my hobbies.
If only I had warned Alan about the broken window.

Learn more about sentences with wish and if only in English grammar.