What are conditionals?

Teaching English involves, to a large extent, teaching grammar and vocabulary. Some people assume that if you can speak a language you can teach it, but that is definitely not the case. Speaking a language by no means means that you are aware of the intricacies and rules regarding the language. It would be difficult for an untrained speaker to explain certain grammatical terms to a learner because the speaker manipulates the language naturally, without thinking.

This can be demonstrated by asking a native speaker what a conditional sentences is. Chances are, they won’t be able to tell you even though they use them all the time. So if you’re not an English teacher and you’re in the same boat, here is a quick explanation of what conditionals are:

Conditionals are a grammatical structure we use in English to refer to situations with different levels of probability. There are five types of conditionals and they are all slightly different.

The zero conditional is used to refer to statements which are always true. In other words, always-real situations; facts.

If you heat water to 100 degrees Celsius, it boils.

If + present simple,                                          present simple

The first conditional is used to refer to present situations which are highly likely, or real. It’s often used to express promises or threats.

If you don’t study, you’ll fail.

If + present simple, will

The second conditional is used to talk about a present or future hypothetical situation; it’s unreal or unlikely to happen.

If I won the lottery, I’d buy a car.

If + past simple,         would/n’t

The third conditional refers to an impossible situation in the past. Because it’s in the past it obviously cannot be changed.

If you had run faster, you would have won.

If + past perfect, would have/n’t

Finally, there is a conditional which is a combination of conditionals: the mixed conditional. Mixed conditionals are combinations of past and present situations and real and impossible scenarios.

If I had studied Law, I wouldn’t be a teacher.

If + past perfect,         would/n’t

third conditional,         second conditional

past situation,                present result

If you are not an English teacher there are probably a few grammatical structures which you use naturally but which you wouldn’t be able to explain to a learner. Conditionals are one such example, but if you have never heard the term before now, don’t worry: that’s why we have teachers!