One certainty, hypothetically speaking, is that conditionals haunt every person who attempts to learn, teach, or master the English language, anyone in need of proposing some factual or imaginary. This one is going to make your head hurt. Ah, my chops are wet now, my temperature elevated to a simmering blood-bubble, so let’s get started good grammar geeks of the blog world: What is a conditional?
Typically, conditionals come in the form of “if blah-blah, blah blah”, which when looking at it in this blah-blah form seems rather simple. However, if you look more closely, the whole sorted world of proposition sentence making will blow your skillet. There are rules galore, codes of conduct, and a dizzying array of verb tenses. Generally, however, conditionals come in four varieties: the zero, the first, the second, and the (hmm…What should we call it?) third.
The zero conditional is used for statements of general knowledge or fact, often rather scientific-sounding declarations (If water reaches zero degrees Celcius, it freezes.) and sometimes rather stupid observations (If it is raining outside, this grass is getting wet.) It can also be used to claim truths about yourself: If I don’t bath, I stink. If I eat beans, I make the bath stink. In the case of the zero condition, both the dependent clause (the if-statement) and the independent clause (the consequence) should be in either present simple or present continuous/progressive tense. This one is the easiest, as well as the least used, conditional.
The first conditional references the future results of hypothetical proclamations: If something happens, the result will be this. The first conditional also utilizes the present simple or continuous tenses (happens), only now these are used to express possible or theoretical events in the future. Thus, the main clause, the result, should occur in the future, so we utilize “will” or “be going to” to express that (will be). Now, If I don’t bath, I will stink becomes grammatically correct, but the future tense in the result makes it supposed rather than factual. The plot thickens when we consider other modals, like can and may, that can be used instead of future tense: If I eat beans, I can make the bath stink—sounds like fun.
If the first conditional left you a little bewildered, I wouldn’t fret about it, as we are now moving on to the second conditional, also known as the unreal conditional. In its simplest form, the second conditional expresses sort of dream-like musings (If I had a million dollars, I would never teach conditionals again.) or offerings of advice (If I were you, I would continue reading this. It’s important stuff, or is it?). Of course, with a new conditional comes a new ration of verb tenses, the if-clause now befriending the past simple or past continuous tense, where as the main clause utilizes would rather than will. If I didn’t bath regularly (meaning that I do—making the statement, “I don’t bath regularly”, unreal), I would stink (meaning that I don’t—making the statement, “I stink”, untrue.) Go on, look at it again. Have a think.
*Note that, for exceptions and giggles, the grammar gods made a special rule that the past tense “be” verb should always be were in second conditionals, despite the painstaking efforts of English teachers to make students use was when speaking in the first-person (I) or the third-person (he/she/it). So, we say, If I were (not was) to eat beans (meaning I haven’t yet), I could make the bath stink.
We’ve finally arrived at the third conditional, again delving into the unreal, this time with special attention to things that I didn’t do and the results that did not happen: If you had known how long this would take, you wouldn’t have bothered, but now there is only one more paragraph—can’t stop with only one paragraph left. For the sake of expedience: If + past perfect verb tense, could/would/might + have + past participle. If I had eaten beans last night, I might have avoided this whole article by entertaining myself in the bathtub, meaning that I didn’t eat beans last night and, as you are well aware by now, this article has not been avoided.
The real tragedy of teaching conditionals is that students eventually get to the point of having learned the four I’ve just presented you, labored over memorizing the formulas to create each one and when to use them—they get to this point, as you have now, only to find out that with mixed conditionals (hidden in the back of the advanced books) all bets are off, that basically conditionals are not above participating in a big orgy where no one knows whose verb tense is going into which clause of whatever conditional. As with any key party, things start to get really complicated. So, there we have it, a tragic orgy, something I never thought I’d say.