5 Types of Conditionals

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When crafting “If (this), then (that)” statements, note that several varieties exist, distinguished by tense and probability. This post describes, with examples, various types of conditional statements.

“Zero conditional” pertains to things that occur in the natural course of events: “If a person stands out in the rain, he or she gets wet.” Both the main clause (“he or she gets wet”) and the subordinate clause “if a person stands out in the rain”) are written in the present simple tense.

The first conditional is a form of sentences in which the first clause includes if and a present simple-statement, followed by a future-simple statement in the second clause. By comparison, a second conditional follows the past simple with would and the infinitive. The distinction is that first conditionals are likely but not certain to happen, as in “If I talk to him, I will remind him,” while a second conditional describes something unlikely to occur, as in “If he showed some initiative, he would get a raise,” or something that is impossible, as in “If I could go back in time, I would do things differently.”

A third conditional, by contrast, uses the past perfect and the past participle to describe something that did not occur in the past and therefore will never happen (at least, that iteration of the occurrence will never happen, although a repeat attempt might succeed), as in “If she had remembered to set her alarm, she would have gotten to school on time.”

Beware of writing conditional sentences in which an if statement posed in the present-simple tense is followed by a statement that is true regardless of the conditional established in the previous clause, as in “If you want to get a great burrito, my favorite taqueria is next to the movie theater downtown.” The writer’s favorite taqueria is in the stated location regardless of the desires of the recipient of the communication, so the conditional form is not appropriate here; it would be better to write, “If you want to get a great burrito, go to my favorite taqueria, next to the movie theater downtown.”

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