Home » The Tenses: Their Meanings and Uses » The Meanings and Uses of the Conditional Tenses

The Meanings and Uses of the Conditional Tenses

The Conditional Tense

The conditional tense is used to describe what would happen in the future if something else happened first, or what would be possible or true if something else existed or was true.

The conditional tense also describes what would not happen unless something else was true or happened first.

  • What would happen if I pressed that button?
  • Of course I would lend you the money if you asked me.
  • They would probably promote you if you worked harder.
  • If you came with us, you would learn something to your advantage.
  • I wouldn’t go with her to the doctor’s unless she asked me to.
  • She wouldn’t buy a dog unless she was sure she could look after it.

When used to refer to a future event in reported speech after a verb in the past tense would plus a bare infinitive is often called the future in the past tense:

  • He said he would come.
  • You promised you would help me.
  • She told me she would always be there for me if I needed her.

The Conditional Continuous Tense

The conditional continuous tense is used instead of the conditional tense in order to emphasize that what is being described is a continuing state or action.

  • If you worked harder, you would be earning as much money as John.
  • If we had won the lottery, we would be lying on a beach in Tahiti by now.
  • If you hadn’t wakened him, he would still be sleeping.
  • If I was being chased by a dog, I would be running even faster.

The Perfect Conditional Tense

The perfect conditional tense is used to say what would have happened in the past if something else had happened first or what would have been true if something else had been true.

The perfect conditional tense also describes what would not have happened unless something else had happened first.

  • We would have won if we had played better.
  • We would have escaped if only we had had a ladder.
  • would have come if she had invited me.
  • We would never have believed it if we hadn’t seen it with our own eyes.
  • He would not have said that unless he was intending to buy the house.

The Perfect Conditional Continuous Tense

Like the conditional continuous tense, the perfect conditional continuous tense is used to emphasize that what is being described is a continuing state or action.

  • The dogs wouldn’t have been fighting in the street if you had kept them under control in the first place.
  • Had I not realized how much my stay in hospital was going to cost me, I would have been laughing heartily at what had happened.
  • The police would not have been chasing you unless they had thought you were the thief.

Active and Passive

The description of the tenses in this unit has concentrated on the tenses in the active voice. The passive equivalents are as follows:

Conditional Tense:

  • Active: They would probably promote him.
  • Passive: He would probably be promoted.

Conditional Continuous Tense:

  • Active: If I was at home, I would be washing the car right now.
  • Passive: If I was at home, the car would be being washed right now.

Perfect Conditional Tense:

  • Active: I would have sent the cheque by now if I had got your bill.
  • Passive: The cheque would have been sent by now if I had got your bill.

The perfect conditional continuous tense is NOT normally used in the passive.

The Sequence of Tenses in Conditional Sentences

conditional sentence is a sentence in which there is a subordinate clause (a conditional clause or adverbial clause of condition) that states the conditions or circumstances that are necessary, or would be necessary, or would have been necessary, for whatever is talked about in the principal clause.

Conditional clauses usually begin with if, but may begin with other words such as unless and providing.

  • We will arrive tomorrow night if we’re lucky.
  • If you love her, then tell her.
  • I wouldn’t come unless she invited me.
  • So long as you don’t forget your lines, you’ll he fine.
  • You could have stayed providing you lent a hand with the cooking and cleaning.

There are three main types of conditional sentence, known as first conditionals, second conditionals and third conditionals.

Some, but not all, conditional sentences use conditional tenses in their principal clauses (not in their conditional clauses).

First Conditionals

First conditionals state what will or may happen in the future if something else happens or unless something else happens.

  • If I go into town this afternoon, I’ll buy that book you want.
  • Those plants will die if you don’t water them regularly.

The verb in the conditional clause may be in the simple present tense, the present continuous tense, or the present perfect tense:

  • If I go into town this afternoon, I’ll buy that book you want.
  • Unless he works a lot harder, he won’t pass his exams.
  • If you don’t water these plants regularly, they’ll die.
  • If he’s sleeping, don’t waken him.
  • If you are still working in the garden when I arrive, I’ll give you a hand.
  • If he has finished the crossword, I’ll be able to read the rest of the paper at last.

The verb in the conditional clause may also be formed with should and an infinitive:

  • If she should happen to ask you where I am, tell her you don’t know anything.
  • If I should see Jean, I’ll tell her what you said.

The conditional clause with should can also be formed without a conjunction such as if and with the should at the beginning of the clause, especially if the conditional clause precedes the main clause:

  • Should she happen to ask you where I am, tell her you don’t know anything.

The verb in the main clause is usually in the future tense, but may also be formed with a modal verb other than will or shall. It can also be in the form of a command:

  • If I go into town this afternoon, I’ll buy that book you want.
  • Unless he works a lot harder, he won’t pass his exams.
  • If James isn’t home yet, I can phone again later on.
  • If the rain doesn’t stop soon, the match may be cancelled.
  • If he’s still sleeping, could you waken him for me?
  • If she asks you where I am, tell her you don’t know.
  • If he’s still sleeping, don’t waken him.

Second Conditionals

Second conditionals are used to describe what would happen in the future if something else happened first.

Second conditionals express greater uncertainty than first conditionals about whether or not what is being spoken about will ever actually happen: they are sometimes said to express unreal or hypothetical situations.

Second conditionals are also used to describe something that would be possible or true if only something else existed or was true (whilst in fact it does not exist or is not true). Second conditionals may therefore express imagined situations.

  • If she invited me, I would come. (but she might not invite me)
  • If you worked a little harder, you would pass all your exams. (but I know you may not work harder)
  • If we were asked to help, of course we would help. (but we might not be asked)
  • If only we had wings, we could fly out of here. (but we don’t have wings, so we can’t)
  • If only we had enough money, we could go to Europe for our holiday. (but we don’t have enough money, so we can’t go)

For the second conditional, the verb in the conditional clause is in the simple past tense:

  • If I wrote, the letter tonight, I could post it tomorrow morning.
  • Of course I would lend you the money if you asked me.
  • I wouldn’t go with her to the doctor’s unless she wanted me to.
  • They would probably promote you if you worked harder.
  • If only we had more time, we could visit Nancy and George while we’re in Edinburgh.

The subjunctive were is often used instead of was in second conditionals, especially in more formal English:

  • If Tom was OR were here, he would know what to do.
  • If that was OR were the case, we would surely have been warned about it.
  • If matter was OR were evenly spread throughout infinite space, it could never gather into a single mass.

When the verb is were, then the conditional clause can be formed without if, etc, with the verb were at the beginning of the clause, especially if the conditional clause precedes the main clause:

  • Were that the case, we would surely have been warned about it.
  • Were he to be found guilty, it would be an appalling injustice.

Note in particular the set phrase if I were you:

  • If I were you, I wouldn’t agree to what they are suggesting.
  • If I were you, I’d jump at the chance of going to America with him.

You cannot say if I was you.

With second conditionals, the verb in the main clause is usually in the conditional tense or the conditional continuous tense, though modal verbs other than would may also be used:

  • Of course I would lend you the money if you asked me.
  • wouldn’t go with her to the doctor’s unless she wanted me to.
  • They would probably promote you if you worked harder.
  • If you worked harder, you would be earning as much money as John.
  • If you worked harder, you might pass your exams after all.
  • If I wrote the letter tonight, I could post it tomorrow morning.

Third Conditionals

Third conditionals refer to the past and say what would have or might have happened if something else had happened first or what would have or might have been true if something else had been true. Third conditionals therefore refer to something that has not happened or was not the case.

  • We would have won if we had played better. (but we didn’t play better, so we didn’t win)
  • We could have escaped if only we had had a ladder. (but we didn’t have a ladder, so we couldn’t escape)

The verb in the conditional clause is usually in the past perfect tense but a past perfect continuous tense is also possible:

  • I would have come if she had invited me.
  • We might have stayed longer if we had had more time.
  • If I had known that, I would never have come.
  • What would have happened if they hadn’t found you in time?
  • If you had been wearing more sensible shoes, you wouldn’t have fallen.

The conditional clause can also be formed without if with the verb had at the beginning of the clause, especially if the conditional clause precedes the main clause:

  • Had known that, I would never have come.
  • Had she invited me, I would have come.

The verb in the main clause is usually in a perfect conditional or perfect conditional continuous tense, though modal auxiliaries other than would are also possible:

  • would have come if she had invited me.
  • What would have happened if they hadn’t found you in time?
  • If I hadn’t come to pick you up, you would have been waiting in the rain for a bus for hours.
  • If I had known that, I might never have come.
  • We could have stayed longer if we had had more time.

Although might have is correctly used in third conditional sentences, many people nowadays use may have:

  • If the police had successfully hunted down the terrorists after the embassy bombings, the recent atrocities may never have happened.
  • Mr Mitchell said that if it had not been for Britain’s resistance to Nazism, the course of history may have been very different.

Although increasingly common, this usage is not yet fully acceptable. Be aware of this use of may have, but continue to use might have.

Two other Types of Conditional Sentence

Implicational conditionals say that if something is or was true, then something else must also be or have been true.

  • If it is slightly windy here, it must be blowing a gale up in the hills.
  • If there was no reply, John must have been out.

The verb in the conditional clause is in the present continuous tense or the simple present tense, or the past continuous tense or the simple past tense:

  • If it is raining here, it is no doubt raining in London as well.
  • If it snows in winter in England, then it probably snows in Scotland as well.
  • ‘All these European cities look the same to me,’ said Hank wearily, ‘but if today is Thursday, then we must be in Rome.’
  • If James was being silly, he must have had too much to drink.
  • If the window was broken, someone must have broken it.

The verb in the main clause will usually be in the same tense as the verb in the conditional clause, or else it may be formed with must or will:

  • If it is raining here, it is no doubt raining in London as well.
  • If it is raining in London, it will be snowing in Scotland.
  • ‘If today is Thursday, then we must be in Rome,’ said Hank.
  • If the window was broken, someone must have broken it.

General conditionals describe what generally happens or happened if something else happens or happened.

  • If I drink more than two glasses of wine, I start to giggle.
  • If anyone ever accused him of being lazy, he would always claim that he had a sore back.

The verb in the conditional clause is in the simple present or simple past tense:

  • If you ask him a difficult question, he always stares at his fingers and then says ‘It all depends’.
  • If anyone shouted at her, she always burst into tears.

The verb in the main clause is generally in the simple present or simple past tense, but in the past tense would is also possible:

  • If you ask him a difficult question, he always stares at his fingers and then says ‘It all depends’.
  • If anyone shouted at her, she always burst into tears. OR … she would always burst into tears.

Leave a Comment

error: Alert: Content is protected !!