Conditionals: How Can I Understand & Use Them?

Why do we use conditionals?

As difficult as getting to know your conditionals can be, and we know it can, it’s nowhere near as impossible as some people would believe it is. It does get a bit trickier when you introduce mixed conditionals into the, well, mix, but it still remains rather manageable. 

And it’s mostly down to individuals. Some people find differentiating between Present Perfect and Past Simple a lot harder, while some struggle with learning how to describe the future. However, finding a good place to learn English in California is the first step toward mastering conditionals. Until then, read our detailed guide to gain a deeper insight into their use. 

Why do we use conditionals?

We use conditionals to express a certain “condition”, and the result of that condition. That’s the basis of it. Then, depending on the type of conditional we choose to use, we can express a great many things, be it about the future or the past. 

In order to understand why we use conditionals better, you need to be familiar with the basic structure of every conditional sentence. So, we have an if-clause, which is used to describe the “condition”, and we have the main clause, which states what will happen if the condition is met.

Not exactly something you’d need pundits from the California Department of Education to explain, but, on the other hand, not entirely easy either. But, that’s about it - we use conditionals to describe a result of a certain action.

How many conditionals are there?

There are four main types of conditional sentences, unimaginatively named the Zero Conditional, First Conditional, Second Conditional, and Third Conditional. Now, let’s elaborate a bit further.

1. Zero Conditional - We use the Zero Conditional to express something which will always happen if a certain condition is met, i.e. general truths. When it comes to the Zero Conditional, you use Present Simple Tense in both the if-clause and the main clause. 

  • If you heat water, it boils.
  • If you go to bed late, you wake up tired in the morning.
  • If you mix red and green, you get brown.

2. First Conditional - The point of the First Conditional is to express an outcome that is likely to happen in the future, not guaranteed mind you, if a certain condition is fulfilled. You use Present Simple Tense in the if-clause and the Future Simple Tense in the main clause.

  • If it snows, I will go sledding.
  • If I see my friend, I’ll have coffee with him.
  • If I save some money, I will buy a new phone.

3. Second Conditional - The Second Conditional is where things start to get a bit tricky. Sometimes, we use the Second Conditional to express entirely unlikely scenarios where the condition will probably never be met, and, because of that, neither will the result occur. 

At other times, we use it to express something that can happen. You use Past Simple Tense in the if-clause, and one of the modal verbs (e.g. should, could, might, would, etc.) plus the main verb in the main clause.

  • If I had more money, I would get a Ferrari.
  • If Tom spent more time studying, he could have better grades.
  • If I met Tom Cruise, I would ask him for an autograph. 

4. Third Conditional - Finally, there’s the Third Conditional. We use it to explain how the current circumstances might have been different if something else had happened some time ago. So, hypothetical situations. You use Past Perfect Tense in the if-clause, and the construction modal verb (e.g. could, should, would, etc.) + have + past participle of the main verb. 

  • If you had paid more attention while driving, you would not have broken your bumper.
  • If she had studied harder, she would have gotten a better grade. 
  • If Monica had seen me, she certainly would have said “hi”. 

And that’s it, at least for now. You can also mix conditionals, mainly the Second Conditional and the Third Conditional, but we’re not going to get into that now. These four types of Conditional sentences are plenty for you to find your way around any speaking situation. 

How do you understand conditionals?

We’re sorry to tell you, but in order to understand conditionals, to really really understand how to use them, you need to learn them and learn them well. You need to learn how to form them, which tenses to use for which conditional and then try using them as much as you can. 

However, although it does sound difficult and even though it does require a lot of work, time, and dedication, there are some small tips we can give you in order to master conditionals more quickly.

  1. Watch out for “ifs” and “woulds” - Try to pay attention to every if you hear or read as it probably has something to do with conditionals. Also, would is also very frequently used in conditional sentences, so try to catch them as well. This will help you learn conditionals more quickly.
  2. Divide sentences - When you’re just starting with conditionals, it’s helpful to always break sentences into two distinct parts - the if-clause and the main clause, and learn which tense goes where for every conditional. 
  3. Try to make it flexible - Finally, when you’ve already gained some insight into the conditionals, you can start making them sound more natural by mixing the order of the if-clauses and main clauses. Don’t always begin with the if, try to do it a bit differently every time. 

“It’s still a bit difficult; where can I find a good English language school to help me along?”

If you’re struggling with conditionals, you’re neither the first nor the last. There have been many before you, and many are to come. 

Here, at the College of English Language, we know just how difficult conditionals can be, which is why we’ve taken great time and effort to come up with the perfect way of explaining it to our students. So, if you’re looking for a place to learn English conditionals in California, just stop by our place near Balboa Park, and let’s see what we can do.