Verbs in time clauses and 'if' clauses

Learn about verbs in time clauses and conditionals and do the exercises to practise using them.

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 your 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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Hello,

If a "would have V3" sentence is used alone, should we take it as a sentence about an unreal past situation?

For example ... "the landscape would have been open" ... does this sentence mean that ... in fact landscape was not open in the past?

Thanks a lot.

Hello Ilter,

It certainly could be talking about an unreal past situation, and I'd even go so far as to say it probably is talking about an unreal past situation, but what exactly it means really depends on the context. The context and the verb forms make meaning together.

If you can give us the context, then we can tell you more.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Kirk,

The complete paragraph is ...

"Walking back through the menhirs, Agogué explained while the Alignments are reasonably well preserved, both nature and humans have altered the appearance of the site over time. When the Alignments were constructed, the landscape would have been open, without the trees that now divide and flank the sections, and the sea would have been further away. And in the past 6,000 years, some of the menhirs have toppled over – including one last year."

In this context, I think that it does not talk about an unreal past ... would "might have been" be more correct here? What the meaning here "would" adding to the context?

Thanks a lot,
Best wishes

Hello Ilter,

Thanks for giving the full context -- that's much clearer now.

This is the use described on our 'will have' and 'would have' page in sentences such as:

It was half past five. Dad would have finished work.

In a case like this, the speaker has good reasons for their belief (for example, she knows her father always finishes at 5:00), but not direct evidence (she hasn't seen him leave work). The speaker is imagining a situation that they haven't witnessed but which seems likely due to some evidence. It could be their knowledge of that person's typical behaviour, or it could be some other evidence.

In the passage you ask about, the writer supposes that the landscape was open in the past -- they probably have some archaeological or historical evidence to support this idea and are fairly certain about it -- but obviously they didn't witness it themselves.

Does that make sense?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

 

Hey, I hope it's still okay to comment, I have two examples about which I'd like to know more please!
first example: *boy comes to a girl's house to ask her dad* "Hey, is she here? I promised her I'd see her before I left"
second example: *they don't want him to go outside while there's danger* "Nobody would want him to leave the safety of the house until the criminal was caught"

Please explain these two to me! Maybe with a sort of model/format/structure and also the name of this?
And I couldn't find anything on the web with this example, especially with before/until, and would + verb so if you could talk about this too if there's anything to it.

Thank you in advance!

Hi aa223,

Sure, no problem. You can think of example 1 as reported speech (i.e. indirect speech). The boy may have said to the girl, "I promise I'll see you before I leave". Some time later, the boy tells the girl's dad what he promised her earlier, so it all shifts back into the past (promise --> promised; I'll see --> I would see; leave --> left). You can read more about this on our Reported Speech 1 page (linked).

In example 2, "would" and the use of the simple past "was caught" frame the situation as an imagined or hypothetical one, rather than one that is realistic or bound to happen. It suggests that the speaker is not confident or certain that the criminal will actually be caught. Saying "Nobody would want him ..." (rather than "Nobody wants him ...") suggests that the speaker has not actually gone around and asked everybody what they want, but is supposing or assuming what they want.

I hope that helps to make sense of it.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi dear team. I was wondering if you could help me identify what kind of sentence the following one I saw in a movie. I mean, I know that the zero conditional is used with present simple in both clauses but I don't know if we can use zero conditional with both clauses in simple past. And also I know that the second conditional is used for hypothetical situations and has a Modal verb like would and will. My question is what kind of sentence is this one? : "If somebody said it was a happy little tale, if somebody told you I was just an average ordinary guy, not a care in the world, somebody lied". Thank you so much.

Hello David,

When we're not speaking about an imaginary or unreal situation (as in a second or third conditional), the verb tenses we use in sentences with 'if' have their 'normal' meanings -- in other words, the present refers to the present and the past to the past.

That's the case for the sentence 'If somebody said it was a happy little tale, if somebody told you I was just an average ordinary guy, not a care in the world, somebody lied'. Without knowing more about the situation, it's hard to work exactly what is meant by this, but basically the speaker is saying that whatever another person said about them isn't or wasn't true.

Does that make sense?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you so much dear Kirk for your help.
So is it possible to classify the if clause in simple past and the main clause in simple past in a specific category? I mean do you think that sentences like: 'if someone called me, I didn't notice it' or 'if I came late, it wasn't my fault' are a kind of zero conditional with both clauses in simple past or do they belong to a different category?
Thank you so much.
And regarding the sentence from the previous comment do you think it is a kind of indirect question? I mean: (' did somebody say it was a happy little tale? Well, somebody lied = 'If somebody said it was a happy little tale, somebody lied').
Thank you so much for your help.

Hello David Araque,

The so-called 'zero', 'first', 'second' and 'third' conditional labels were created by teachers as a way to help students make sense of some common patterns. But the truth is, 'if' sentences can be used with any verb tense that makes sense. Of course, what makes sense isn't always easy for students to discern, and so that's why we have these labels. But, as you've discovered, other combinations are possible.

If you think about it, the tenses in zero and first conditionals are 'normal' uses of the verb tenses. The same is true of second and third conditionals, too, because the use of the past to talk about unreal situations is a use of the past tense that also occurs in other structures (e.g. 'I wish it were raining now'); we just don't typically think of these uses. So really all the tenses we use in 'if' sentences are normal uses of the verb tenses that exist in other situations too.

I wouldn't call the sentence in a question a zero conditional, personally. It's two past simple verbs used to talk about a condition in the past. But if coming up with some name for this structure helps you remember it, then by all means, go ahead -- just know it will be your own creation.

Yes, 'Did somebody say (that) it was a happy little tale?' has the structure of an indirect question. But if you combine it with 'somebody' lied, the indirect question is embedded within the larger 'if' sentence.

Hope that helps.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Can you please shed light on the proper structure of this sentence.

"He promised to come when he was/is done at work"

Please which is correct to use between "was" or "is"?

Hello Aryin,

It depends. If the speaker thinks the man is still working when the speaker says this, then 'is' is the correct form. But if the speaker thinks the man already finished his work at the time of speaking, then 'was' is the correct form.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Sir,
In your above-mentioned example

‘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.)

- I used to write e.g. ‘We would go by train if it weren’t (!) so expensive.’
‘I would look after the children for you at the weekend if I were (!) at home.’

Could you, please, explain it to me why you used another grammatical form?

Thank you in advance.

Hello Helena-Victoria,

In 'if' clauses talking about an unreal situation, both 'was' and 'were' are correct forms of the verb 'be' for both first-person singular subjects ('I') and third-person singular subjects ('he', 'she' or 'it').

Many years ago, the only correct form for such situations was 'were', but now in all but very formal situations, 'was' is also accepted. If it's easier for you to remember 'were', then by all means use it -- it is perfectly correct!

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi excellent team! I am writing to ask for information about 'first conditional'. When I write a sentence containing first conditional for example; If you want to lose weight, you will need to eat less sugar. Here I don't understand the 'if clause' (you want to lose weight) refers to future or present. I mean you will want to lose weight / you want to lose weight now? I am asking that question because I saw following information on my book " In this type of conditional, the present tenses in the if-clause usually refer to future time and their use is similar to that in future time clauses." You'd be doing me a huge favour.

Hi Nevı,

It could refer to the present or the future :)

  • Present: If you want (right now) to lose weight, ...
  • Future: If you want (at some point in the future) to lose weight, ...

We would need to know the context in which this is said to know which timeframe is intended.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

You've been really helpful, teacher. However, for example; My friend said 'I have excessive fat and want to be more thin' I can say 'If you want to lose weight(right now) ,... But another context like My friend is pregnant and said' After giving birth, I will not want to be fat' I can say `If you want to lose weight (at some point in the future),... Would it be possible for you to check whether my contexts are true, teacher Jonathan? If not could you give me an example contexts. The LearnEnglish Team teachers and administers are really helping me out.
Hi teacher, I want to learn one more thing. In this sentence "Simon works at night so he gets home from work when* I get up. " I saw this sentence while doing exercise about non-defining relative clauses. 'when' in the sentence functions relative clause? I think it is conjunction? Sincerely
If I won the lottery, I would won a new house. In this situation, do I say the sentence when I'm playing the lottery? Or before the game I say it, sir

Hello Gendeng,

The sentence implies that the result is not known, so you would say this before you learn the result. Once the result is known (and you didn't win!), you would say 'If I had won... I would have...'

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi team, "might have prepared a better presentation if I had more time." I saw in this sentence in my book exercise. I wonder why we didn't say"... if I had had more time."Because if clause must be past perfect? or this is exception?

Hi Nuro,

Both had more time and had had more time are possible here.

 

We use the past perfect (had + verb3) when we are talking about a particular situation at a particular time:

I might have prepared a better presentation if I had had more time (yesterday/last week/this morning).

In other words, 'had had' describes a specific instance of not having time, not a general situation.

 

We use the past simple (verb2) when we are making a non-time specific statement:

I might have prepared a better presentation if I had more time (I am always/generally short of time; this is simply how my life is).

In other words, 'had' describes something which is generally true of the speaker's life - they never have time, and the presentation is not as good as it might be because of this.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, I have a question with regard to the main clause of first conditionals. Can we use 1) the present continuous with future meaning and 2) going to + verb, again with future meaning? Ex.: If it rains, the race is going to be cancelled.

Hello Aglaia,

Yes, you can use a range of future forms in the main clause. Will indicates a conditional prediction; going to, a conditional plan; present continuous, a conditional arrangement. Other modals are also possible, showing conditional probability, possibility, advice etc.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Can you tell me the answer please Which one is correct There's/ there are no furniture in this room
Hallo sir, Can I use 'if' for replacement of 'when' or 'as' ~ if he didn't work yesterday, he was probably ill. ~ as he didnt work yesterday, he was probably ill. Are those sentences the same? If so, is there any reference for the grammar? Thank you, sir

Hello Risa warysha,

All of the words (if, when and as) are possible in this example, but the meaning changes.

If tells us that you are not sure whether or not the man was working yesterday.

When tells us that you know he was not working, but are not sure whether or not he was ill.

As tells us that you are drawing a conclusion (that he was ill) from the fact that he was not working yesterday.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello team, I've several questions. e.g, I would not have asked her to come into work if I she was so ill. From the previous sentence, I think the main clause is talking about the present, why 'have' is used? e.g, We would have a lot more money nowadays if our flat hadn't been so expensive. I think the main clause is also related to present, why 'have' is used? Can I rewrite the sentences to: e.g, We would get a lot of money nowadays if our flat hadn't been so expensive. OR e.g, We might get a lot of money nowadays if our flat hadn't been so expensive. Thanks a lot.
I find this sentence odd: You could have stayed with us if you had come to London. Why it's not: You could have stayed with us if you had came to London. And can I say: You could have stayed with us had came to London.

Hi gsg238,

The first sentence is actually the correct one :)

In the second sentence, we can't say if you had came because after had, it must be the past participle form of the verb (come = past participle; came = past simple). This is a past perfect structure (see this page for more examples and explanation).

In the third sentence, the subject (you) is needed. It can't be omitted from the if-clause. We also need to add if. 

Alternatively, we can use this more formal form without if and with an inversion: You could have stayed with us had you come to London.

Does that make sense?

Best wishes,

Jonathan

Hi, You mentioned that "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 or when we make hypotheses." By this, and with respect to time clauses, are you simply saying that when using time clauses to refer to the past, simply use simple past tense (as logically you would expect - for example "We had dinner before we watched the movie") and similarly use simple present tense in a time clause when you are referring to the present. In other words, we only need to ensure that time clauses referring to future time are in the simple present tense? Regards, Tim

Hello Tim,

Yes, that's right. When speaking about the past you could also use the past perfect or the past continuous, and when speaking about the present, the present continuous is also possible, but in these cases they are used in the normal way -- that is, not like the use of the present simple to speak about the future, for example.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi everyone, I find this article rather confusing at some point. For example, when explaining how to use past tense to talk about something that didn't happen in the past, they made an example as "If I had got the job, we would be living in Paris." In the following part they made a similar sentence to explain how to structure a hypothetical conditional that is about the present or future as "If I had got the job, we might be living in Paris now." Could anyone tell me how different are these two sentences regarding the time reference? To me, they could both refer something that happens in the present. Am I right?

Hello Harry de ZHANG,

Both sentences do refer to a hypothetical present time. The difference between the two sentences lies in the modal verb. 'would be living' states that in that hypothetical situation (in which I got the job -- in reality I did not get the job), we are definitely now living in Paris. 'might be living in Paris now' states that in that hypothetical situation, perhaps we are living in Paris and perhaps we are not.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

 

Hi Kirk, Now I understand the nuance between the two sentences. Thank you so much for the explanation! You are a big help! Apart from this question, I think there might be a mistake in this article. If you would look at the first part that talks about the future, you might find an example sentence as written as "You must wait here until you father comes." I think it should be "your father" instead of "you father." But I could be wrong.

Hello Harry de ZHANG,

I'm glad that helped you! 

And thanks for pointing out that error to us -- you are right and I have fixed the error.

Best wishes,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hey dear For example I have not had much idea about someone else. But I can tell some possiblities about that person. For example I have to tell about Jon to his girlfriend. I can only predict Jon's behaviour, but do not know the exact truth whether that condition really happened or not in the past. For example My prediction is: If Jon had beaten his boss (in the past) the surely he will beat his boss(in the future) But If Jon had not beaten his boss, then he will not beat him in the furture. So this is my prediction about Jon's behaviour because I know him very well. So I can only tell possibilities to his girlfriend about Jon's behaviour. Exactly both I and his girfriend don't know about Jon's mishap with his boss. We are just predicting. Please help me sir about this situation.Reagrds
Hi Aabida, Yes, that makes sense. But in the 'if' clause, it should be 'If Jon has beaten ...', using present perfect (not past perfect). The past perfect ('had beaten') is for a past event that took place earlier than another defined past time, but there isn't one here. See our Past perfect page for more details: https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/grammar/intermediate-to-upper-intermediate/past-perfect You could also write this as a single sentence, as with your other question: - Whether Jon will beat his boss (in future) depends on whether he has beaten him (in the past). If you want to show clearly that you're speculating, you could add a phrase like 'I guess' or 'probably'. Does that make sense? Jonathan The LearnEnglish Team
Hello dear, Please clear my doubt if this is conditional or not. For example If I say that if I had kept my promise (if I am telling about conditions in the past) I will never break it ( in the future). But If I had not kept it in the past then there might be chances to break it in future. So it mainly depends upon the conditions happened in the past. My query is : are these sentences can be joined in a single sentence by using conditional? If conditional then how to write it? Please help me. Thanks in advance.
Hi Aabida, It's possible to join these two sentences using a single sentence if you reword them. - Whether I keep my promise in the future depends on whether I've kept it until now / in the past. Does that express your meaning? It also works as two sentences. I might say something like this: - If I've kept my promise (until now), I'll never break it. - If I've broken my promise, I might break it again (in future). You could use 'but' to join these as one sentence. Jonathan The LearnEnglish Team
Last doubt: Is this clause possible: "Maybe I can help you if you tell me what is wrong."? If so, isn't the version bellow in the past tense? "Maybe I could help you if you told me what was wrong." The last is placed in the exercise about the present/future.

Hello again Elo,

The sentence is not about the past. We use the past form to describe a hypothetical present or future which we see as impossible or unlikely. In your sentence, the speaker thinks it unlikely that the other person will tell them what is wrong and so uses a past form (told) to express this.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team