I know for a fact that a lot of writers and editorsâincluding myself when I still didnât know any betterâoften draw a blank in their grammar when dealing with conditional sentences that have an âifâ-clause. For the result clause of such sentences, many of us simply couldnât be absolutely sure whether to use âwillâ or âwouldâ plus the base form of the verbâŠor perhaps just its simple present tense. Somehow the basis for the choice isnât adequately taught or learned in school, so many of us end up just hazarding a calculated guess that at best only has a 33.33% probability of being correct.
Check this hypothesis of mine by testing yourself with these three multiple-choice questions:
1. âIf water is heated to 100 degrees Centigrade, it (will boil, would boil, boils).â
2. âI (will qualify, would qualify, qualify) for the post if Iâm a civil service eligible, but Iâm not.â
3. âIf you pass the qualifying test, you (will get, would get, get) a full scholarship.â
How did you fare? I would consider a score of 66.66% a passing grade.
Anyway, to help improve the capability of native and nonnative English users alike in handling conditional sentences, I wrote an essay on the subject, âThe four types of conditional sentences,â in my English-usage column in The Manila Times in the middle of last year. I am now posting that essay in this weekâs edition of the Forum to provide everybody a firmer and more reliable basis for constructing them. (January 8, 2011)
The four types of conditional sentences
One important aspect of English grammar that I donât recall having discussed fully yet is the conditional sentence. This is the type of sentence that conveys the idea that the action in the main clause can take place only if the condition in the subordinate clauseâthe âifâ-clauseâis fulfilled.
The simplest form of the conditional sentence has this structure: the âifâ clause states the condition in the present simple tense, is followed by a comma, then followed by the result clause in the form âwill + base form of the verb,â as in this example: âIf you meet your sales quota, we will give you a fat bonus.â
But there are actually four types of conditional sentences, each type indicating the degree of certainty or likelihood that the stated condition will be fulfilled. They are the so-called first conditional or real possibility, the second conditional or unreal possibility, the third conditional or no possibility, and the zero conditional or certainty.
The first conditional (real possibility)
The first conditional talks about a high degree of possibility that a particular condition or situation will happen in the future as a result of a possible future condition. This is the case with the first conditional sentence given earlier: âIf you meet your sales quota, we will give you a fat bonus.â As with all types of conditional sentences, of course, the result clause can also be stated ahead of the cause clause, as in this example: âWe will give you a fat bonus if you meet your sales quota.â
The second conditional (unreal possibility)
The second conditional talks about a possible but very unlikely result that the stated future condition will be fulfilled; in short, the stated outcome is an unreal possibility. This type of conditional has the following sentence structure: the âifâ clause states the future condition in the simple past tense, is followed by a comma, then followed by the future result clause in the form âwould + base form of the verb,â as in this example: âIf I finished law school, I would be a lawyer.â (âI would be a lawyer if I finished law school.â) The speaker here is talking of an unreal possibility because he didnât finish school and didnât become a lawyer.
The third conditional (no possibility)
The third conditional talks about a condition in the past that didnât happen, thus making it impossible for a wished-for result to have happened. This type of sentence has the following structure: the âifâ clause states the impossible past condition using the past perfect tense âhad + past participle of the verb,â is followed by a comma, then followed by the impossible past result in the form âwould have + past participle of the verb,â as in this example: âIf I had saved enough money, I would have bought that house.â (âI would have bought that house if I had saved enough money.â) The speaker here is talking of an impossible situation because he had not saved enough money and has not bought that house.
Third conditionals could sometimes also use the modal forms âshould have,â âcould have,â and âmight have,â as in these modal variants of the example above: âIf I had saved enough money, I should have bought that house.â âIf I had saved enough money, I could have bought that house.â âIf I had saved enough money, I might have bought that house.â In all three cases, of course, none of the wished-for situations in the past had taken place.
The zero conditional (certainty)
Finally, the zero conditional or certainty talks about a condition whose result is always true and always the same, like a scientific fact. It has the following sentence structure: the âifâ clause states the condition in the simple present tense, is followed by a comma, then followed by the result clause also in the simple present tense, as in this example: âIf people donât drink water, they get dehydrated.â (âPeople get dehydrated if they donât drink water.â) (June 12, 2010)
From the weekly column âEnglish Plain and Simpleâ by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, July 10, 2010 Â© 2010 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
ANSWERS TO MULTIPLE CHOICE QUESTIONS ABOVE:
1. âboilsâ - certainty: zero conditional
2. âwould qualifyâ - unreal possibility: second conditional
3. âwill getâ - real possibility: first conditional
ANSWER TO QUIKQUIZ ON FACEBOOK AND TWITTER:
âIf water is heated to 100 degrees Centigrade, it (will boil, would boil, boils).â
Answer: âboilsâ - certainty: zero conditional