English Grammar in Context – Tense Timelines, Mindmaps, Writing Tips, and More...

How to Use the Conditional Tense in English


In the pages to follow, you will learn what conditionals are and how to use them in real-world situations. Our tables, charts and diagrams provide lots of helpful examples for you to start using conditionals straight away. 


1. Expressing Degrees of Certainty

What is the Conditional?

A condition is something which is required before something else - a result - can happen. This is why a conditional sentence has both a condition and a result. The speaker uses conditional forms to express their ideas on what they think might happen in the event of certain other conditions occurring.

The speaker chooses different grammar structures to form conditional sentences, to express how likely they think a certain possibility is.

There are three ways of expressing our understanding of certainty: General Truth, Possible, and Impossible. However, Possible can be broken down into two sub-categories - Likely and Unlikely - giving us 4 categories in total. Understanding these Degrees of Certainty and their associated patterns when forming sentences is the key to understanding and using Conditionals.

The colour-coding system used in Figure 1 will continue throughout this section, and will help you learn the patterns of structure and usage:


Fig. 1 Degree of Certainty Table


Example Sentence

Degree of Certainty

(Colour-Coding)

IntentionExplanation
If you freeze water, it turns to iceSure (GREEN)Express a General Truth/Habit
  • It is a fact that water freezes
If you study hard, you will pass your examsLikely (YELLOW)Express a Likely Event
  • I believe you can study hard

If you studied harder, you would pass your exams

Unlikely (RED)Express an Unlikely Event
  • You are lazy and probably will not study
  • Neither the condition nor the result can be in a past time-frame
If you had studied hard, you would have passed your examsImpossible (BLUE)Express an Impossible Event
  • The exam is over and you failed (you cannot change any action in a past time-frame)
  • Either the condition or the result (or both) must be in a past time-frame


In Figure 2, you can see the movement of statements from Factual (General Truths) to Hypothetical (Impossible):

Fig. 2 From General Truths to Impossible Events


Conditional-General-Truths-to-Impossible.svg


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