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How and when to use the four basic conditional structures.

Conditionals are sentences with two clauses: an ‘if' clause and a main clause.
Four basic conditional structures are used in English:
  • Zero Conditional
  • First Conditional
  • Second Conditional
  • Third Conditional
Zero conditional  What is always true or usually happens, or what is advised in this situation.
IF +Present Simple +Present Simple
If you have a ticket you go straight in.
If you stand in the rain you get wet.
If you see an accident call an ambulance.

Note : The 'if'  in the above sentences can usually be replaced by 'when' without changing the meaning.

First conditional  Something that will possibly happen in the future.
IF +Present Simple +Will + Infinitive
If I see an accident I will call a doctor.
If it rains tomorrow the picnic will be cancelled.
If you make an apple tart Dad will eat it.

Note : Sometimes we use can or may instead of 'will'.
For example :  "If you finish your vegetables, you can have a dessert."

Second conditional  Imaginary events that are probably not going to happen.
IF +Past Simple +Would + Infinitive
If I saw an accident I would call a doctor.
If he had more money he would buy a new car.
If she worked harder her results would improve.

Note : Sometimes we use could or might instead of 'would'. For example:
"If we invited the author, he might come."
"If we ordered a larger quantity, we could ask for a reduction."

Third conditional  Something that did not happen, and the reaction or result you imagine if it really had happened.
IF +Past Perfect +Would + have + Past Participle
If I had seen the accident I would have called a doctor.
If he had read the instructions he would have assembled it faster.
If she had stayed in Paris she would have improved her French.

  • Conditional structures with inversion :
    In conditional sentences we can sometimes replace the 'if' with an inversion:
    • If I had known it would be so difficult I would never have enrolled.
      With inversion: → Had I known it would be so difficult I would never have enrolled.
    • If we had known she was alone we could have called her.
      With inversion: → Had we known she was alone we would have called her.

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