Conditionals 1

Do you know how to use the zero, first and second conditionals? Test what you know with interactive exercises and read the explanation to help you.

Look at these examples to see how zero, first and second conditionals are used.

If you freeze water, it becomes solid.
If it rains tomorrow, I'll take the car.
If I lived closer to the cinema, I would go more often.

Try this exercise to test your grammar.

Grammar test 1

Conditionals 1: Grammar test 1

Read the explanation to learn more.

Grammar explanation

Conditionals describe the result of a certain condition. The if clause tells you the condition (If you study hard) and the main clause tells you the result (you will pass your exams). The order of the clauses does not change the meaning.

If you study hard, you will pass your exams.
You will pass your exams if you study hard.

Conditional sentences are often divided into different types.

Zero conditional

We use the zero conditional to talk about things that are generally true, especially for laws and rules.

If I drink too much coffee, I can't sleep at night.
Ice melts if you heat it.
When the sun goes down, it gets dark.

The structure is: if/when + present simple >> present simple.

First conditional

We use the first conditional when we talk about future situations we believe are real or possible.

If it doesn't rain tomorrow, we'll go to the beach.
Arsenal will be top of the league if they win.
When I finish work, I'll call you.

In first conditional sentences, the structure is usually: if/when + present simple >> will + infinitive. 

It is also common to use this structure with unless, as long as, as soon as or in case instead of if.

I'll leave as soon as the babysitter arrives.
I don't want to stay in London unless I get a well-paid job.
I'll give you a key in case I'm not at home.
You can go to the party, as long as you're back by midnight.

Second conditional

The second conditional is used to imagine present or future situations that are impossible or unlikely in reality.

If we had a garden, we could have a cat.
If I won a lot of money, I'd buy a big house in the country.
I wouldn't worry if I were you.

The structure is usually: if + past simple >> + would + infinitive. 

When if is followed by the verb be, it is grammatically correct to say if I were, if he were, if she were and if it were. However, it is also common to hear these structures with was, especially in the he/she form.

If I were you, I wouldn't mention it.
If she was prime minister, she would invest more money in schools.
He would travel more if he was younger.

Do this exercise to test your grammar again.

Grammar test 2

Conditionals 1: Grammar test 2

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Hi Plokonyo,

It might be helpful to distinguish two things: (1) what the words literally mean, and (2) what is implied. Let's take this example:

  • If it doesn't rain tomorrow, we'll go to the beach.

For (1), the literal meaning, it only has information about what we will do if it doesn't rain. It says nothing explicit about the opposite situation - what we will do if it does rain. So, to answer the question you asked: "what if it rains tomorrow, will we go to the beach?" If we take the sentence literally, we cannot answer this question. It has no information about that.

However, meaning is not contained in words alone. This brings us to (2) - what is implied. By saying "If it doesn't rain tomorrow, ..." (i.e., a condition for the action), the speaker implies that if it actually does rain tomorrow, the action will be different (because if the action will be the same, then it doesn't actually matter whether it rains or not, so there is no reason to mention it). The speaker may imply, for example:

  • If it rains tomorrow, we won't go to the beach.
  • If it rains tomorrow, we might or might not go to the beach. It depends how heavy the rain is.

Both of these (we won't go / we might or might not go) are different from the original (we'll go).

So, should you interpret a sentence like this literally, or read the implications? That will depend on what the exact context is. But I would say that in conversation and other social situations, the implication is likely to be important. It's normal that there is some ambiguity or lack of clarity about the implication, since it is not stated explicitly, so you might feel unsure about e.g. whether they will go to the beach if it does rain. But in a real conversation this may be the point where the listener asks the speaker to clarify: "How about if it does rain? Will you still go?"

I hope that somehow helps to make sense of it.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, Jonathan. Thanks for the explanation. I'm still confused about a first conditional. This page explains
"We use the first conditional when we talk about future situations we believe are real or possible". What is the actual meaning of "real" or "possible" in the type first conditional form?

Arsenal will be top of the league if they win.

Hi Plokonyo,

It means that in the speaker's view, the situation can be reasonably expected to happen or to be true - although, like many future events, it is still ultimately uncertain. In this example, it means that it is reasonable to expect that Arsenal will win (although, of course, it does not guarantee it) - and if they do, they will be top of the league. In other words, the sentence indicates something about the real world that we all live in and experience.

Compare it with a second conditional: Arsenal would be top of the league if they won. This speaker imagines Arsenal winning but considers it impossible, or unlikely to happen. Expanding the example might help to illustrate why it's impossible/unlikely: Arsenal would be top of the league if they won, but they've got so many injured players I don't think they've got a chance. With the second conditional, something major about the real world would need to unexpectedly change (e.g. injured players suddenly regaining fitness, or Arsenal signing many new players), in order for Arsenal to be able to win. That's why the second conditional shows an imagined situation - it's separated from the real world.

It would be less typical for a speaker to use the first conditional in this sentence ("Arsenal will be top if they win ... but I don't think they've got a chance"), because the first conditional's 'real-worldness' conflicts with the idea that "I don't think they've got a chance".

I hope that helps to understand it.

Jonathan

Thanks for the great explanation, Jonathan. So if I'm as a commentator, which should I choose to use first conditional or second conditional? For example, there is a Arsenal vs Manchester United match today and I'm watching them.

If Manchester United win today, it will put them in 5th place.
If Manchester United won today, it would put them in 5th place.

Hi Plokonyo,

In theory, you could use both, depending on your view of how likely Manchester United are to win. However, cultural factors will also affect the words you choose. In some cultures, it is expected that sports commentators should remain neutral and not favour one team or the other. If you used the second conditional as a commentator in that culture, it might seem inappropriate because you would be assuming that United have little or no chance of winning, which might be perceived as a biased or non-neutral opinion. In that case, the first conditional would be a more neutral way of expressing it. If you are not operating in that type of culture, then I don't think there's a problem with using either sentence.

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks a lot for the explanation, Jonathan. I'm a little bit confused. As you have explained that "If you used the second conditional as a commentator in that culture, it might seem inappropriate because you would be assuming that United have little or no chance of winning, which might be perceived as a biased or non-neutral opinion". In the following sentence, Manchester United take a 32nd minute 1-0 lead, then the commentator/journalist uses the second conditional "would" in this case. Does the commentator think Manchester United still don't have a chance of winning though they're in the lead?

Leicester 0-1 Man Utd (32 mins) A win tonight would take Manchester United up to fifth in the Premier League table.

Shouldn't it instead be "A win tonight will take Manchester United...?"

Hi Plokonyo,

That bit of information, about United being a goal ahead, changes my interpretation. Here, "would" shows that the win is not yet likely or ensured. The speaker is showing that although United are currently winning, there is a reasonable chance of the situation changing before the end of the match.

When I read the sentences in your previous message, I imagined them being said before the beginning of a match, without having any particular reason to think that one team or another would win or lose. What I wanted to say in that comment was that comparatively, the 'would' version is sometimes used to express relatively more doubt.

As I think we've discussed before, the context provides information that helps us to make and understand meanings, e.g., who is speaking? Who is he/she speaking to? What is his/her role? What is the situation in the game? What else is said in the conversation? What do we know about the relative strengths of the two teams? These might all affect whether we choose "will" or "would", among other things. If we only see the person's words alone, they are not always easy to interpret!

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks a lot, Jonathan. This is kind of confusing. It means the second conditional has two interpretations, doesn't it? If it's said before the beginning of a match, it's happening now, it means it's used to imagine a present/future situations impossible or unlikely.
When the game is underway, the commentator is speaking live, then does the second conditional express a doubt/describe what might happen?
There is a reasonable chance of the situation changing before the end of the match.

Man Utd 1-0 Liverpool (32 mins)
If Man Utd won, it would put them in second place

In live commentary, the commentator is speaking live, what do native speakers use to describe/see the situation -- first conditional or second conditional?

Hi Plokonyo,

Yes, the second conditional does have nuances in its meaning, but its general meaning is that the situation can be reasonably doubted to happen. It’s also relevant that your previous example that I commented on was "A win tonight would take Manchester United up to fifth in the Premier League table." This has only a "would" clause, no "if" clause, so it naturally focuses more on the (un)certainty of the end result, rather than the condition.

I’ve already commented that the use of the first or second conditional depends on several things, so I don’t think it’s possible to make a general statement such as “commentators say X”, which is bound to contradicted by other examples. There will be variation in what commentators say and mean, and both conditionals will be used. Also, we risk focusing perhaps too much on differences in meaning/usage that are hard to identify clearly, and missing the possibly more useful point that both the first and second conditional may be acceptable in the situation.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks a lot for the explanation, Jonathan. So when "would" (no "if" clause) is turned into a type 2 conditional sentence, it will have a different nuance, right?

Leicester 0-1 Man Utd (32 mins) A win tonight would take Manchester United up to fifth in the Premier League table. Here, no "if" clause, it means this naturally focuses more on the (un)certainty of the end result, rather than the condition.

However, if I turn the sentence into a type 2 conditional sentence, it would indicate an impossible or unlikely situation.

32 mins: Leicester 0-1 Man Utd
If Man Utd won today, it would take them up to fifth in the Premier League table.

Is my understanding right? What do you think?