Level: beginner

Verbs in time clauses and conditionals usually follow the same patterns as in other clauses but there are some differences when we:

  • talk about the future
  • make hypotheses.

Talking about the future

In time clauses with words like when, after and until, we often use present tense forms to talk about the future:

I'll come home when I finish work.
You must wait here until your father comes.
They are coming after they have had dinner.

In conditional clauses with words like if, unless, even if, we often use present tense forms to talk about the future:

We won't be able to go out if it is raining.
I will come tomorrow unless I have to look after the children.
Even if Barcelona lose tomorrow, they will still be champions.

We do not normally use will in time clauses and conditional clauses:

I'll come home when I finish work. (NOT will finish work)
We won't be able to go out if it rains. (NOT will rain)
It will be nice to see Peter when he gets home. (NOT will get home)
You must wait here until you father comes. (NOT will come)

but we can use will if it means want to or be willing to:

I will be very happy if you will come to my party.
We should finish the job early if George will help us.

Future time and conditional clauses 1

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Future time and conditional clauses 2

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Level: intermediate

Making hypotheses

Some conditional clauses are like hypotheses, so we use past tense forms.

We use past tense forms to talk about something that does not happen or is not happening in the present:

He could get a new job if he really tried.
        (= He cannot get a job because he has not tried.)
If Jack was playing, they would probably win.
        (= Jack is not playing so they will probably not win.)
If I had his address, I could write to him.
        (= I do not have his address so I cannot write to him.)

We use past tense forms to talk about something that we believe or know will not happen in the future:

We would go by train if it wasn't so expensive.
       (= We will not go by train because it is too expensive.)
I would look after the children for you at the weekend if I was at home.
       (= I cannot look after the children because I will not be at home.)

We use past tense forms to make suggestions about what might happen in the future:

If he came tomorrow, we could borrow his car.
If we invited John, Mary would bring Angela.

After I/he/she/it, we can use were instead of was:

If Jack was/were playing, they would probably win.
We would go by train if it wasn't/weren’t so expensive.
I would look after the children for you at the weekend if I was/were at home.

We use the past perfect to talk about something which did not happen in the past:

If you had seen him, you could have spoken to him.
        (= You did not see him so you could not speak to him.)
You could have stayed with us if you had come to London.
        (= You could not stay with us because you did not come to London.)
If we hadn't spent all our money, we could take a holiday.
        (= We have spent all our money so we cannot take a holiday.)
If I had got the job, we would be living in Paris.
        (= I did not get the job, so we are not living in Paris.)

If the main clause of a hypothetical conditional is about the present or future, we use a modal:

If I had got the job, we might be living in Paris now.
        (= I did not get the job so we are not living in Paris now.)
If you had done your homework, you would know the answer.
        (= You did not do your homework so you do not know the answer.)

If the main clause is about the past, we use a modal with have

If I had seen him, I would have spoken to him.
       (= I did not see him so I did not speak to him.)
You could have stayed with us if you had come to London.
       (= You could not stay with us because you did not come to London.)
If you had invited me, I might have come.
       (= You did not invite me so I did not come.)

Hypothetical conditionals: present/future 1

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Hypothetical conditionals: present/future 2

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Hypothetical conditionals: past 1

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Hypothetical conditionals: past 2

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Comments

Hello,
We are a small team here and there isn't a guarantee of an instant response to every question. Your question is on a list to look at and we will get to it when we can.
Best wishes,
Adam
The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks AdamJK, thank you very much. Now I am relaxed... deep breathing. You responded me at least.

I wonder why have you not answered to my question? I mean.... you must have taken some time to write an explanatory comment so why not the answer.... 

Hello Adam,
Thank you very much for the explanation on conditional but I would like to add that it would also have been better if you introduced briefly the formal definition of all levels of conditional because having seen the brief formal definition one could be prepared to understand the concept and other forms of a particular level of conditional. I had not been able to understand the topic "verbs in time clauses and if clauses" but when I had seen the formal definition in another website, only then everything had been cleared and I really enjoyed the various forms of conditional you presented here. 
All the best.
P.S If you find flaws on my usage of conditional in this message then one thing is also clear. I need to know more.

If Jack was playing they would probably win - since it is supposed, should not it be were instead of was as given below?
If Jack were playing they would probably win.
Some one pls help. 
"If he were you, then he would probably win." - is the above sentence not same as this one?

I don't have an answer, rather the same question:
Is the expression "if it wasn't for penicillin, I would be dead" correct?
In the British Council examples, I found "We would go by train if it wasn’t so expensive", however, when I studied English ages ago I learnt that the verb to be used in conditional sentences takes the form "were" even for singular pronouns. 
Is this an old fashion way of speaking?
 

Hello Juno,

Thank you for your question. The expression is absolutely correct. It’s true that people used to be taught that we should use ‘were’ rather than ‘was’ in the if-clause in second conditional forms, but nowadays both are accepted. I usually tell my learners that ‘were’ is more common with the first person (‘If I were...’) but ‘was’ is more common with the third person (‘If he was...’), but neither are wrong.

I’m not sure I’d describe it as old-fashioned, but it’s certainly an example of how the English language is changing.

Best wishes,

Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

would you explain about this kind of if-clause?
if i had to start again I’d choose to do a journalism option.
when can we use had to in if clause ?
can we use "have to" and "has to"?

Hello sarah.mk!

This is an example of the second conditional. The speaker doesn't think he or she will have to start again, so it is a situation which is not happening. He or she is just imagining it. For this meaning, we use If +past tense, I would + present tense.

Changing to have to (present tense) is OK, but it changes the meaning, and you have to change the would part, too.

If I have to start again, I will choose to do a journalism option.
 
Now, the sentence means the speaker thinks there is a real chance he or she will have to start again. It is a statement about a future possibility.

Basically, you can use most verbs in an if clause, including have to. Use the past form and would if you are imagining a situation, and present form and will if you want to talk about something that might happen in the future.

Hope that helps!

Jeremy Bee
The LearnEnglish Team
 

Hi teachers,
I have a question about reported speech in the past, and the use of "would have"
For example:
The doctor told me: if you don't want to get worse, stay at home.
How can I turn it in a reported speech?
Can you tell me where I can find the grammar rules?
thank you so much,
 
Stefania (from Italy)

Hello stesitula!
 
In answer to your question, you don't need 'would have', but you do need to change the 'stay' (which is imperative) to advice or obligation:

The doctor told me if I didn't want to get worse, I should/had to stay at home.
 
Remember you can always use the search box on the right of the page to find particular topics. For example, if you type reported speech into the box, you get this page of results. You'll see we have lots of material on reported speech - take a look!
 
Regards
 
Jeremy Bee
The LearnEnglish Team

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