For those learning English, conditionals can be a bit confusing. Most native speakers don’t even realize what a conditional sentence is when they use one. So, what do you need to know? A few tips and a practice sesh or two and you’ll be good to go.
What is a conditional sentence, anyway?
The word condition is defined as, “subject to one or more conditions or requirements being met; made or granted on certain terms”. So, a conditional clause is also known as an -if statement. For example:
A) If I go to the store, we can eat dinner.
Here, if is the conditional word. Because,
A) If I don’t go to the store, we can’t have dinner, there is no food to cook.
Dinner, in this case, relies on if I go to the store or not. The outcome is conditional.
The statement must include a conditional word or phrase followed by the subject then the verb than the noun. (See the SVO sentence structure to brush up your skills.) In the above example notice, there is a comma separating the two clauses.
Clause: If I go to the store,
Clause: we can eat dinner.
Grammar is important.
Exploring Conditional Sentences
The two questions most often asked about conditionals, are:
- Where does a conditional clause go in the sentence?
- What kind of conditional sentences is there?
To answer the first question, a conditional clause can go at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a sentence.
- Beginning: If I get a loan, I can go to college.
- Middle: I, unless I get a loan, can’t afford to go to college.
- End: I can go to college if I get a loan.
Does it really matter which way you put it? Not really, it’s a matter of your preference and what point you are trying to emphasize.
The second question needs a little more discussion.
Types of Conditional Sentences
There are three types of conditionals expressing events in the past, present and future.
1. A condition that is possible to fulfill
A condition that is possible to fulfill is used when talking or writing in the simple present tense and requires the use of the word will or, another modal verb which indicates the future, and an infinitive.
- If Joe goes to the store, he will cook dinner.
- If I win the lottery, I can buy a car.
He will cook, as in, it will happen in the future – but only if he goes to the store. And, I can buy a car in the future – but only if I win the lottery.
2. A condition that in theory could happen
A condition that in theory could happen when talking in simple past tense has to use would* and an infinitive.
- I would pass the test if I studied.
- If I get off of work in time, I should be able to go.
*Would can be substituted with could or might and sometimes should, may or must.
3. A condition that is not possible because it’s too late
Tenses in English can get a little nutty, but it’s important to know which one to use when so you can get your point across succinctly. Here, the past perfect tense is used to express a condition that is no longer possible because time has passed.
- If I had saved my money, I would have had enough to buy a new laptop.
- We, if we had known, would have arrived at the meeting earlier.
These sentences communicate something that cannot be changed because it has already happened but still includes a condition.
Real and Unreal Conditionals
Conditionals can be broken down into two more types: real and unreal. Here’s a table to make this make more sense:
If I have soda, I drink it.
If I had soda, I drank it.
If I have soda, I will drink it.
If I had soda, I would drink it.
Present unreal (I would do this today)
If I had had a soda, I would have drunk it.
If I had a soda, I would drink it.
Future unreal (I would do this next month)
If you’re like… wait, what? Take a few minutes to watch this conditionals grammar lesson which should help you hear and see it in practice.
It could get kind of boring if every single conditional sentence had to start with little old if. So, you can use a replacement word or phrase to substitute the “if”. Some examples:
- as long as
- assuming (that)
- provided (that)
- on condition (that)
All of these also imply conditional situations, just in a more diverse way.
- Assuming that I study, I will pass the test.
- Unless I forget to study, I should pass the test.
- As long as there is traffic, I can not get to work on time.
So there you have it, the super brief overview of conditionals in the English language. If you want to excel in English, you should practice, practice, practice. (See what I did there?)