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Conditional Structures of Verbs

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The Conditionals: If p, then q

In the English language, we often express conditions. Naturally, Miss Hamrick, Amber, and Igor dreamed up some rules to govern how we form these structures. We have four types of conditional statements. Now one would think that we would call these “1, 2, 3, and 4.”

But noooooo.

With rules come new terms, so the Grammar Committee met in their dank cave and came up with these clever numbers to name the four conditional structures of verbs:

First Conditional Second Conditional Third Conditional Zero Conditional

We can express each conditional in two ways. We can say:

1. If … condition … result: If p, q. 2. Result … if … condition: Q, if p.

First Conditional - Real Possibility

The first conditional contemplates a real possibility.

The first conditional examines a future condition and states a future result. Suppose you’re at home right now. You want to play golf this afternoon. You look outside and see clouds forming. It’s not raining right now. But the clouds look ominous.

You express the future condition by using the simple present tense.

You express the future possible result by using the future tense.

Thus:

If it rains, I will cancel my golf match. I will cancel my golf match if it rains.

You’re not obligated to use the future tense will cancel. Other modal auxiliary verbs can provide other meanings:

If it rains, I should cancel my golf match. If it rains, I might cancel my golf match. If it rains, I won’t cancel my golf match.

Second Conditional - Unreal Possibility or Dream

The second conditional also looks to the future, but the odds of the possibility happening are remote. The second conditional contemplates an unreal possibility, a dream. Suppose, for example, that you do not have a lottery ticket. The odds of winning with no ticket are zilch. No ticket. No win. But you can still dream with the second conditional. After all, you might buy a lottery ticket.

You express the future condition by using the simple past tense.

You express the future improbable result by using the modal auxiliary would and the base verb.

Thus:

If I won the lottery, I would buy a beach house. I would buy a beach house if I won the lottery.

Again, you’re not locked in to the use of would. Other modal auxiliaries can help you express other meanings.

If I won the lottery, I could stop working.

Third Conditional - No Possibility

The first and second conditionals look to a possible future result. The third conditional, by contrast, looks to a result that could have happened in the past if the condition had happened. But the condition did not happen, so there was no possibility of the result.

You express the past condition by using the past-perfect tense.

You express the impossible result by using the modal auxiliary would have and the past participle of the verb.

Thus:

If I had won the lottery, I would have bought a beach house. I would have bought a beach house if I had won the lottery. Would you have played golf if it had rained yesterday?

Zero Conditional - A Certainty

Sometimes in the “if p, then q” formulation, “q” always happens. The condition is zero. So our Grammar Committee named this fourth conditional the zero conditional.

In the zero conditional, we’re not talking about the past or the future. Whenever the condition takes place, the result is, was, or will be the same.

You express the condition by using the simple present tense.

And you express the certain result by using the simple present tense.

Thus:

If people do not eat, they get hungry. People get hungry if they do not eat. If you are late for work, your boss gets angry. Your boss gets angry if you are late for work. If you heat ice, it melts. Ice melts if you heat it.

Conditionals - A Table

Here’s a handy table showing the four conditionals, the result probability, methods of expressing the condition and the result, and examples.

Conditional Probability of Result Express Condition Express   Result Example
First 50-50 present tense future tense If it rains, I will cancel my match.
Second 10% or less past tense would + verb If I won the lottery, I would buy a beach   house.
Third 0% past-perfect   tense would have +   past participle If I had won the lottery, I would have bought a beach house.
Zero 100% present tense present tense If you heat ice, it melts.

 

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