Verbs in time clauses and 'if' clauses

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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Submitted by Nevı on Thu, 13/05/2021 - 13:20

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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

Submitted by Nevı on Fri, 14/05/2021 - 10:23

In reply to by Jonathan R

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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.

Hello Nevi,

Yes, it looks as if you understand this correctly. Good work!

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Nevı on Sat, 06/03/2021 - 11:07

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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

Submitted by Gendeng on Fri, 19/02/2021 - 11:52

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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

Thanks, Peter. You said 'would say' instead of will say, what does 'would' mean there?

Submitted by Nuro on Sat, 23/01/2021 - 09:51

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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

Submitted by Aglaia on Mon, 21/12/2020 - 11:54

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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

Submitted by Samin on Sat, 07/11/2020 - 14:20

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Hello Can you tell me the answer please Which one is correct There's/ there are no furniture in this room

Submitted by Kirk on Sat, 07/11/2020 - 14:51

In reply to by Samin

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Hello Samin,

'furniture' is an uncount noun and so 'there is' is the correct verb form here.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Risa warysha on Wed, 28/10/2020 - 11:36

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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

Submitted by Via on Wed, 21/10/2020 - 00:24

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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.

Submitted by gsg238 on Sat, 17/10/2020 - 01:03

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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

Submitted by OlaIELTS on Tue, 08/09/2020 - 22:49

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The tip is really enormous and useful. Thanks.

Submitted by Timothy555 on Wed, 26/08/2020 - 14:17

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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

Submitted by Kirk on Wed, 26/08/2020 - 15:27

In reply to by Timothy555

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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

Submitted by Harry de ZHANG on Fri, 31/07/2020 - 09:29

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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.

Submitted by Kirk on Mon, 03/08/2020 - 13:11

In reply to by Harry de ZHANG

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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

Submitted by Aabida on Sat, 18/07/2020 - 06:19

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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

Submitted by Jonathan R on Sun, 19/07/2020 - 04:11

In reply to by Aabida

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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

Submitted by Aabida on Sat, 18/07/2020 - 05:49

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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

Submitted by Elo on Sat, 11/07/2020 - 03:30

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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

Now I got it. I have just read the next lesson about "Hypothesis" and this topic is explored there. Thanks again!

Submitted by Elo on Sat, 11/07/2020 - 03:22

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I'm in doubt about a clause in the exercise Hypothetical conditionals: present/future 1. It says "if it was A JUST little bit cheaper." Should it not say: "if it was JUST A little bit cheaper."?

Hello Elo,

You are quite right - well spotted! We've corrected this mistake in the exercise.

 

Thanks again,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Elo on Sat, 11/07/2020 - 02:59

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Hello! In the clause: "If Jack was playing, they would probably win." Could it be written: "If Jack was playing, they would probably have won."? Thank you!

Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 11/07/2020 - 07:10

In reply to by Elo

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Hello Elo,

The second sentence is not possible because it puts the result (would have won) before the cause (was playing). You would need to say If Jack had played... for the sentence to be logically coherent.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by VegitoBlue on Sun, 28/06/2020 - 14:14

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Your article mentions 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/make hypotheses." Does this mean that, apart from talking about the future/making hypotheses, if for example we are talking about the past, we simply follow the same usual grammatical rules as we do when creating regular simple past sentences, for example "He came home after he finished work." ?

Submitted by Dukul on Sat, 23/05/2020 - 11:19

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Why is "would" used instead of "will" in these following sentences? 1) ...some government officials and financial investors are beginning to worry that the Chinese currency may also be devalued. If that happens, it would likely start a new round of further devaluations in Thailand, Indonesia, and other countries that compete with China. 2) He told the Sunday Herald that if the court decides not to sit on Fridays, he would support the decision. 3) That new customer may spend thousands of dollars with your company over the next several years. If that happens, it would really be worth the investment, wouldn't it? 4) ''Are they really going to shut us down in the middle of the winter?'' he said. ''If they do, it would be a total social disaster.'' 5) Sony is so far behind in the market that it has been forced to strike a joint venture with Samsung under which the South Korean company - and rival - would provide it with a steady stream of LCD panels for TVs that should make it competitive with market leaders.

Submitted by CareBears07 on Fri, 22/05/2020 - 15:31

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Hi, I have come across sentences using past tense in if-clause and present tense in the main clause, such as: 1) A hamster is pregnant for only about three weeks and up to 20 babies can seemingly appear overnight in a hamster's nest if you didn't know your hamster was pregnant. 2) Hamsters will eat more when they are pregnant and nursing, but otherwise their diet will remain the same as if they weren't. Are they grammatically correct and do you classify them as "mixed conditionals"?

Hi CareBears07,

The first sentence does not read well, I think. It is mixing general statements about hamsters with a specific and particular situation, which is inconsistent. You could argue that there is an implied result clause which is omitted, however:

A hamster is pregnant for only about three weeks and up to 20 babies can seemingly appear overnight in a hamster's nest as they would/might if you didn't know your hamster was pregnant.

 

The second example has a hidden result clause. The full sentence would be as follows:

Hamsters will eat more when they are pregnant and nursing, but otherwise their diet will remain the same as it would be if they weren't (pregnant).

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Peter, thanks for your prompt explanation. It seems such omissions are common in articles using American English, which at times runs in conflict with the grammar rules of British English. :(

Hi CareBears07,

I wouldn't say that there is a conflict with the grammatical rules, or rather I would say that any conflict is only superficial and disappears on closer inspection and consideration.

 

Language is a tool for expression and communication. Style is as much a part of that as grammar. Where omitting phrases or words causes ambiguity or a lack of clarity it may be problematic (unless the speaker desires ambiguity), but I don't think either of your examples were difficult to understand, even if the underlying grammatical struture was not immediately apparent.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Dean on Wed, 06/05/2020 - 10:46

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Can you Please explain this taken from a TedTalk. Ideally, you would not be satisfied until you had actually done the work.

Hello Dean

This sentence is talking about a hypothetical or imaginary situation. This is clear from the use of 'Ideally' and especially from 'would not be' and 'had done'. 'had done' refers to an imagined time when the work is already done, and 'would' refers to a time after that.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Aabida on Wed, 22/04/2020 - 08:05

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Dear, could you tell me more about if +will/would clauses. For example: If Krystal will meet us at the airport, it will save a lot of time. If you would all stop laughing, I will explain the situation!