Free English Lessons

English Grammar – Using Conditionals (If-Sentences)

by Oli Redman on 24 November, 2014 , No comments

Look at this sentence and think about how you could fill in the gaps: If I __________ enough time, I __________ to your birthday dinner. How could you complete the gaps? Actually, there are several possibilities. Here’s one: If I have enough time, I‘ll come to your birthday dinner. Do you know the other two possibilities?

These sentences with if are called conditional sentences. In this free English video lesson, you can learn more about the different types of conditional sentences in English, what they mean, and how you can use them in your spoken or written English.

1. Conditional Sentences – The Basics

When you want to make a conditional sentence, you need to think about two questions:

  1. Is this sentence about the past, present or the future?
  2. Is this sentence about a real situation or an unreal situation?

A real situation means something which could happen in the future, or which did really happen in the past. An unreal situation means something which probably won’t happen in the future, or which didn’t really happen in the past.

Let’s look at our examples using these questions:

  • If I have enough time, I‘ll come to your birthday dinner.
  • If I had enough time, I’d come to your birthday dinner.
  • If I’d had enough time, I would have come to your birthday dinner.

Can you think about these examples? Are they about the past, present or the future? Are they talking about real or unreal situations?

  • If I have enough time, I‘ll come to your birthday dinner. –> This sentence is about the future, and it describes a real situation. That means: it’s possible that I’ll have enough time, so it’s possible that I’ll come to your birthday dinner.
  • If I had enough time, I’d come to your birthday dinner. –> This sentence is about the future, but it describes an unreal situation. That means: I won’t have enough time, so I won’t come to your birthday dinner.
  • If I’d had enough time, I would have come to your birthday dinner. –> This sentence is about the past, and it describes an unreal situation. That means: I didn’t have enough time, so I didn’t come to your birthday dinner.

Now, let’s see how to make conditional sentences in more detail. Every conditional sentence has two parts: the if-part and the other part (let’s call it the result-part).

The two parts can go in any order; the if-part does not have to go first. You can say:

  • If I have enough time, I‘ll come to your birthday dinner.
  • I’ll come to your birthday dinner if I have time.

A small detail, if the if-part goes first, you need a comma between the two parts. If the result-part is first, don’t use a comma.

2. Future-Real Conditionals

In our first sentence:

  • If I have enough time, I‘ll come to your birthday dinner.

You can see that:

  1. We use the present tense after if
  2. We use will in the result-part

This expresses a real situation in the future. Sometimes, you can use other verbs, instead of will:

  • If I have enough time, I might come to your birthday dinner.
  • If I have enough time, I can come to your birthday dinner.

Sometimes, you can use other present tenses after if:

  • If I’ve finished everything, I’ll come to your birthday dinner.
  • If I’m not having a meeting, I’ll come to your birthday dinner.

It’s almost never necessary to use other present tenses after if. If you want to keep things simple when you’re speaking or writing, just remember if + present simple.

We can’t use future tenses after if: it’s not possible to say if I will… in conditional sentences.

3. Future/Present-Unreal Conditionals

Now, let’s look at our second sentence:

  • If I had enough time, I’d come to your birthday dinner.

You can see that:

  1. We use the past simple after if.
  2. We use would in the result-part. Would is often shortened to ‘d.

This expresses an unreal situation in the future. Be careful: the past verb does not mean that this sentence is talking about the past!

This is an important point, and I see many many students get confused about it, so I’ll say it again: the past verb does not make the sentence about the past. We use a past verb to show that the situation is unreal.

This form (if + past + would) can be about the future or the present, depending on the context:

  • If I had enough time, I’d come with you now.
  • If I had enough time, I’d come with you next week.

Sometimes, students ask me: how do you know if a situation is real or unreal? How do you know which conditional sentence to use?

The answer is that you don’t know—using different conditionals expresses your idea of the situation.

For example:

  • If they win this match, I’ll buy everyone dinner.
  • If they won this match, I’d buy everyone dinner.

Both sentences are perfectly correct.

If you say the first sentence, it means you think it’s possible that they’ll win the match. If you say the second sentence, it means you think it’s impossible, or very unlikely to happen.

By using one sentence or the other, you express your opinion on the situation and how probable it is.

Of course, some situations are obviously real or unreal. It would sound strange to say:

  • If I become president, I’ll give everyone a free cake.

Because it’s very rare that people become president of their countries. However, in many situations, it isn’t so clear, and you can choose which conditional to use.

4. Past-Unreal Conditionals

Next, let’s look at our third sentence:

  • If I’d had enough time, I would have come to your birthday dinner

You can see that:

  1. We use the past perfect after if.
  2. We use would have + past participle in the result-part.

Be careful: both had and would can be shortened to ‘d. If you see ‘d in a conditional sentence, you need to use your grammar knowledge to work out if it’s had or would.

This expresses an unreal situation in the past.

Remember, that means that these things didn’t really happen. I didn’t have time, and I didn’t come to your birthday dinner.

We use this kind of sentence to imagine a different version of the past.

For example:

  • If I hadn’t moved abroad, I wouldn’t have become an English teacher. –> I did move abroad, and I did become an English teacher.
  • If I’d studied medicine, I would have become a doctor. –> I didn’t study medicine, and I didn’t become a doctor.

As before, different verbs are possible in the result-part:

  • If I hadn’t moved abroad, I might not have become an English teacher. –&gt Using might shows that you are less certain about the result.
  • If I’d studied medicine, I could have become a doctor. –> Using could shows a possibility.

5. Review

So now, you know about the most common kinds of conditional sentences:

  1. Future-real –> if + present tense/will)
  2. Future-unreal –> if + past simple/would)
  3. Past-unreal –> if + past perfect/would have + past participle

Let’s finish by making some examples. Can you make one example about your life with each type of sentence?

For example:

  • If it’s sunny this weekend, I’ll go hiking.
  • If I didn’t have so much work, I’d work four days a week.
  • I would have finished my work already if I had got up earlier.

Now it’s your turn! If you aren’t sure if your sentences are correct, you can leave them in the comments to the video (on YouTube) and I’ll tell you if they are right or not.

Conditionals Quiz

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Oli RedmanEnglish Grammar – Using Conditionals (If-Sentences)