First Conditional If-Clauses in English Grammar

What is the first conditional?

The first conditional, also known as type I if-clause, talks about future actions that can only occur providing that a certain condition is fulfilled. This condition is expressed in the if-clause.

Example:
If you study hard, you will pass the exam.

It is also known as the real conditional because it refers to realistic possibilities.

Example:
If it rains tomorrow, we will cancel the picnic.
there is a real chance that it will rain tomorrow, but it is not 100% guaranteed

When to use first conditional if-clauses

Typical contexts for type I if-clauses include:

  • warnings and threats
Example:
If you keep making noise, he will call the police.
  • future consequences
Example:
If the weather gets worse, we will go home.
  • negotiations
Example:
If you behave, I will buy you a toy.
  • superstitions
Example:
If you break that mirror, you will have seven years of bad luck.

How to form the first conditional

The if-clause contains a present tense, while the main clause contains a future tense (usually will/won’t + infinitive) or the imperative.

Example:
If the restaurant has a free table, we will eat there.
If you have any questions, please get in touch.

One or both clauses can be negative.

Examples:
If you don’t eat now, you won’t have enough energy later. (two negative clauses)
If she doesn’t eat now, she will be hungry later. (one negative clause, one positive clause)

The main clause can contain a question.

Example:
If they get lost, will they be ok?

Commas in the first conditional

We can reverse the order of the clauses with no change in meaning.

Example:
If I have time later, I will help you. = I will help you if I have time later.

However, when the if-clause comes first, it is followed by a comma. If the order is reversed, we do not use a comma.

Example:
If I have the ingredients, I will make cookies. (comma after the if-clause)
I will make cookies if I have the ingredients. (no comma)

Info

Remember! If and will never appear in the same clause together:

Example:
If you are late, the teacher will be angry.
not: If you will be late, …

Alternatives to if in the first conditional

We can use the conjunctions unless, as long as and provided that to replace if in conditional clauses:

Example:
I’ll take the job unless I get a better offer.
= I’ll take the job if I don’t get a better offer.

Read more about conditional conjunctions in English grammar.

If vs. when

If and when have different meanings when we speak about the future.

  • use if in conditional sentences to talk about an action or event in the future that may happen
Example:
If we see the Northern Lights, I will take lots of photos.
it’s not guaranteed that we will see the Northern Lights
Example:
We will leave when the concert ends.
the concert cannot go on forever, therefore the ending is guaranteed

Learn more about the difference between when and if.

First Conditional vs. Zero Conditional

First conditional if-clauses refer to specific future situations that will happen providing that a certain condition is fulfilled, while zero conditional if-clauses express general facts, truths and things that always happen.

Examples:
If you leave ice cream in the sun, it melts. (zero conditional)
expressing a general truth applicable to all ice creams
If you leave your ice cream in the sun, it will melt. (first conditional)
talking about a specific ice cream