Clarifying the Conditional Tense



The conditional tense—also sometimes referred to as the conditional mood—communicates what happens, will happen, might have happened, or would have happened if we do, will do, or did do something. The situation described can be real or imaginary; in either case, an action relies on something else (a condition).

For that reason, most English sentences using the conditional include a dependent if clause. They set up a scenario of possibility signaled by the if clause and completed with the speculative result of that circumstance.

Example: If I had known you were going to the store [possible scenario], I would have asked you to pick up some eggs [speculative result].

The conditional is sometimes confused with the subjunctive mood, which often resembles the conditional with a dependent if clause and a theoretical result. The difference lies in that the subjunctive declares a wish or a supposition that is either impossible or highly unlikely as opposed to the conditional’s suggested feasibility. To further indicate improbability, the subjunctive alters proper verb conjugation.

Example: If I were you, I would pick up some extra eggs at the store.

In this sentence, we have a subordinate if clause with a supposition that cannot be possible: I will never be you. However, if I were you [supposed impossibility marked by change in conjugation], I would pick up the extra eggs at the store.

Now that we can distinguish the conditional from the subjunctive, we can review the five common conditional sentences in American English. We’ll first present them in a table format and then elaborate on each, including examples.

Conditional Type Use If clause verb tense Main clause verb tense
Zero Basic truths Simple present Simple present
Type 1 Possible condition with probable result Simple present Simple future
Type 2 Hypothetical condition with probable result Simple past Present conditional or present continuous conditional
Type 3 Unreal past condition with probable result in the past Past perfect Perfect conditional or perfect continuous conditional
Mixed Unreal past or present condition with unreal past or present result Past perfect or simple past Present conditional or perfect conditional

A. The Zero Conditional applies to current or continuous time with a real and possible scenario, often a general truth. The independent and dependent clauses both include the simple present verb tense. The word “when” can often replace the word “if” in the Zero Conditional without changing the meaning. 

Examples:
If (or When) you heat water enough, it boils.
If (or When) the temperature rises, the body perspires to release heat.

 

B. The Type 1 Conditional refers to a present or future real situation—i.e., a possible condition and its likely result. The dependent “if” clause includes the simple present tense, and the main clause uses the simple future.

Examples:
If you spend all of your money now, you will not have any left for vacation.
If you park in that spot, you will get a ticket.

 

C. The Type 2 Conditional expresses a situation that was not real or not happening (a theoretical condition) and its probable result. The “if” clause includes the simple past tense, and the main clause is in the present conditional or present continuous conditional.

Examples:
If you got [simple past] more sleep, you would feel [present conditional] more alert in the morning.
If I had [simple past] better brakes, I would not be hearing [present continuous conditional] a grinding sound every time I slow or stop the car.

 

D. The Type 3 Conditional refers to a situation that didn’t take place and its possible result at a former time. The “if” clause includes the past perfect, and the main clause uses the perfect conditional or the perfect continuous conditional.

Examples:
If you had spent [past perfect] all your money then, you would not have had [perfect conditional] any left for vacation.
If I had replaced [past perfect] my brakes, I would not have been hearing [perfect continuous conditional] a grinding sound every time I slowed or stopped the car.

 

E. The Mixed Conditional is used to convey a former time with a situation that extends into the present; it combines an unreal past or present condition with an unreal past or present result. The “if” clause includes the past perfect or the simple past, and the main clause uses the present conditional or the perfect conditional.

Examples:
If I had kept [past perfect] the instructions [unreal event], I would know [present conditional] how to operate the mechanism correctly [unreal present result].
If he wasn’t [simple past] so afraid of bugs [unreal present, ongoing situation—he is afraid of bugs], he would have gone [perfect conditional] on the nature trail with us [unreal past result].

 

Because of its more-complex variations and structures, the conditional can be a slippery grammatical tool. For easy reference and understanding, you might choose to print this article or bookmark it. Mastering this versatile tense is another great skill to add to your toolbox as a writer and a grammarian in American English.

 

Pop Quiz

Using what you learned in this article, identify the type of conditional used in each sentence.

1. If I had been more focused early on, I would be further along in my career.
a) Type 3 Conditional
b) Zero Conditional
c) Mixed Conditional

2. If they bought our parts, they would earn a greater margin on the products they sell.
a) Zero Conditional
b) Type 2 Conditional
c) Type 1 Conditional

3. When rain falls, the river rises.
a) Mixed Conditional
b) Type 3 Conditional
c) Zero Conditional

4. If she waits too long, she will lose her chance to win the concert tickets.
a) Type 1 Conditional
b) Mixed Conditional
c) Type 2 Conditional

5) If the team had chosen to stay out past midnight before the game the next day, they would not have performed as well on the field.
a) Type 3 Conditional
b) Type 1 Conditional
c) Type 2 Conditional

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. If I had been more focused early on [unreal past condition], I would be further along in my career [unreal present result].
a) Type 3 Conditional
b) Zero Conditional
c) Mixed Conditional [past perfect, present conditional]

2. If they bought our parts [hypothetical condition], they would earn a greater margin on the products they sell [probable result].
a) Zero Conditional
b) Type 2 Conditional [simple past, present conditional]
c) Type 1 Conditional

3. When rain falls, the river rises [basic truth].
a) Mixed Conditional
b) Type 3 Conditional
c) Zero Conditional [simple present, simple present]

4. If she waits too long [possible condition], she will lose her chance to win the concert tickets [probable result].
a) Type 1 Conditional [simple present, simple future]
b) Mixed Conditional
c) Type 2 Conditional

5. If the team had chosen to stay out past midnight before the game the next day [unreal past condition], they would not have performed as well on the field [probable result in the past].
a) Type 3 Conditional [past perfect, perfect conditional]
b) Type 1 Conditional
c) Type 2 Conditional

Posted on Tuesday, October 30, 2018, at 11:00 pm

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5 Comments on Clarifying the Conditional Tense

5 responses to “Clarifying the Conditional Tense”

  1. William McLeod says:

    If I had not read this then, I would not have felt so stupid.

  2. Jan Houser says:

    I always enjoy your emails on various grammar topics, but in today’s message I disagree with one example. The example said: “If he wasn’t afraid of bugs” and is contrary to fact. I would say “If he weren’t afraid of bugs.”

    Also I didn’t see examples of doubtful future such as “If they arrived (were to arrive or should arrive) next week, what would we do?”

    • As the post states, “The conditional is sometimes confused with the subjunctive mood, which often resembles the conditional with a dependent if clause and a theoretical result. The difference lies in that the subjunctive declares a wish or a supposition that is either impossible or highly unlikely as opposed to the conditional’s suggested feasibility.” The example “If he wasn’t so afraid of bugs … ” communicates a situation that was true in the past and continues into the present. “If he weren’t so afraid…” would indicate the subjunctive mood, or something that is supposed or contrary to fact.
      We will consider future tenses for a future newsletter article.

  3. Brandy K. says:

    Thank you so much! This is a great one!

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