Thursday, 12 November 2009

If.... my thoughts on Conditional Sentences

Lots of students at all three exam levels are still making very sill mistakes with the conditional tenses. They are very straight forward but are generally badly taught, so I thought I'd run through them here briefly, but advise students that if they have any grammar worries to acquire a text such as English Grammar in Use (Murphy, Cambridge University Press) and run through the assessment test at the back.
So, in a nutshell (an idiom that means a brief summary):

0 (zero) conditional.

We use this for talking about states, laws and constants and so it's very useful even if it it's not strictly a conditional.


If I heat water to 100 degrees Celsius it boils.

You can of course reverse the sentence.

Water boils if you heat it to 100 degrees Celsius.

Please note that the verb tenses are present simple and present simple.

1st Conditional

We use this to give warnings, make predictions etc.

eg. If you swing on your chair you will fall

We use the present simple in the half of the sentence with 'if' and the future in the other half.

we can also of course use a negative.

If Ronaldo doesn't play Portugal won't win.

2nd Conditional

We use this to talk about an event with a very small/impossible chance of outcome in the real world.

eg. If I won the lotto I would buy a Ferrari.

Note that we use the PAST simple in the half with 'if' and would + infinitive of the verb (without 'to') in the other.

3rd Conditional

We use this for hypotheticals in the past. Think about alternative outcomes/opportunity cost etc

eg. Consider that the lotto was played on Saturday and I didn't win, of course.

If I had won the lotto, I would have bought a Ferrari.

There is such a thing as mixed conditionals, but unless you are very confident in your English don't worry about them too much as regards the Cambridge exams.

Here's an unrealted poem that I like, called 'If', by Rudyard Kipling.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on";

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run -
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man my son!

Hope this was helpful.

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