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What are conditionals?

Conditionals are sentences that connect a possible or hypothetical action or event with a result.

e.g. If the weather is nice, I’ll go for a walk.

With basic conditionals, you need to think about two things:

  1. Are we talking about something real or unreal?
  2. Are we talking about the past or the present/future?

The answers to these questions give us the three basic conditionals:

  1. Real, present: the first conditional
  2. Unreal, present: the second conditional
  3. Unreal, past: the third conditional

Let’s look at these in a bit more detail, with some micro-listening examples.

First conditional

We use the first conditional to talk about real possibilities in the present or future, and their possible results.

Listen to this sentence and fill in the gaps to see an example:

, .

Notice the structure of a first conditional:

If + present, will + verb

In this sentence, a pay rise is a real possibility. My boss likes me, I’m good at my job, and the company is doing well. Maybe I even have a meeting coming up to discuss this. And if I get a pay rise, then – holiday.

Here’s another example:

, .

In this sentence, there is a real possibility of the person studying – they are a good student, they have enough time, etc.

More examples of first conditionals:

  • If I get the job, I’ll celebrate (= getting the job is a real possibility)
  • If Arsenal win, they will go top of the league (= Arsenal winning is a real possibility)
  • If he doesn’t offer me a formal apology, then I’ll hand in my notice (= the person I’m talking about might not apologise to me).

Second conditional

We use the second conditional to talk about unreal situations in the present or future, and their imaginary results.

Try this micro-listening to hear an example:

, .

Notice the structure of a second conditional:

If + past, would + verb

We use the past tense, but the sentence is about the present or the future. This is one of the most confusing and challenging things about conditionals – in English, we use the past tense to talk about the unreal present/future.

In this example, a pay rise is not a real possibility. I’m bad at my job, my boss hates me, and it’s been a terrible year for my company. I’m just imagining a pay rise – it isn’t real. So, unfortunately, no holiday.

Here’s another example:

, .

In this example, we’re talking to a bad student, or someone who is too busy. There is not a realistic possibility of them studying. We can imagine them studying, and imagine them passing the exam, but it won’t actually happen.

More examples of second conditionals:

  • If I had a car, I would give you a lift (= in reality, I don’t have a car, so I can’t give you a lift).
  • If I knew the answer, I would tell you (= in reality, I don’t know the answer).
  • If I won the lottery, I would retire (= in reality, winning the lottery is almost impossible, so I have to keep working).

Third conditional

The third conditional is used to talk about unreal situations in the past, and their imaginary results.

Here’s a micro-listening example:

, .

Notice the structure of a third conditional:

If + past perfect, would have + past participle

The third conditional allows us to imagine something happening differently in the past, and then imagine its result.

In this example, I didn’t go on holiday, because I didn’t get a pay rise. But I use the third conditional to imagine a different, unreal version of the past where I got a pay rise and went on holiday.

Here’s another example:

, .

In this example, the person we are talking to didn’t study, and as a result they failed the exam. We’re using a third conditional to imagine an alternative past where they studied.

More examples of third conditionals:

  • If I had known it was a surprise party, I wouldn’t have told him.
  • If Tom had followed my advice, he wouldn’t have lost all his money.
  • If I hadn’t drunk so much coffee yesterday, I would have slept better last night.

You can find more third conditional listening exercises here.


Conditionals are one of the most challenging areas of English to master. The first step is to gain a proper understanding of the three basic structures and the differences in their meaning:

  • Use the first conditional to talk about the real present : If I have time, I’ll come with you.
  • Use the second conditional to talk about the unreal present: If I had time, I’d come with you.
  • Use the third conditional to talk about the unreal past: If I had had time, I would have come with you.

When you understand this, you’ll have a solid foundation. With practise, you’ll be able to begin producing them fluently and accurately in spoken English.

Any questions, feel free to ask!


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