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Author Topic: The grammar of English conditional sentences  (Read 230 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: March 30, 2017, 11:52:19 AM »

One of the things we will discover when we communicate is that we can’t always hold that every assertion we make is an established truth. To be a credible writer or speaker, we need a well-developed capacity to discriminate between objective fact and assumption, between prediction and speculation, and between certainty and uncertainty. We can’t get away for long with just dispensing what’s now known as “alternative fact,” a term of very recent vintage that the Urban Dictionary defines as “what you call a lie when you are so afraid of accepting the truth.”

In English, establishing and maintaining credibility requires a keen grasp of the grammar of conditional sentences. This means making not just bland assertions of truth every time but expressing them as factual implications or as hypothetical situations and consequences of prediction, speculation, or plain guesswork.



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Basically, there are four types of conditional sentences, each indicating the level of certainty that the stated condition will be fulfilled. They are the 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. This states a high degree of likelihood that a particular condition or situation will happen in the future as a result of a possible future condition, as in this sentence: “If you meet your sales target, you’ll win that European tour.” The “if”-clause here uses the simple present tense while the main clause expressing the likely outcome uses the simple future tense. As with all conditional sentences, this result clause can also be stated ahead of the cause clause: “You’ll win that European tour if you meet your sales target.”

The second conditional. This talks about a possible but very unlikely result that a stated future condition will be fulfilled, meaning that it’s an unreal possibility. Here, the “if” 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 “would + base form of the verb,” as in this example: “If I finished medical school, I would now be a licensed surgeon.” (“I would now be a licensed surgeon if I finished medical school.”) This is an unreal possibility because the speaker didn’t finish medical schol and didn’t become a licensed surgeon.

The third conditional. This talks about a stated condition in the past that didn’t happen, thus making it impossible for a wished-for result to have happened. Here, the “if” clause states the impossible past condition using the past perfect tense “had + past participle of the verb,” is followed by a comma, then followed by the impossible past result in the form “would have + past participle of the verb,” as in this example: “If I had gathered enough courage, I would have proposed marriage last night.” (“I would have proposed marriage last night if I had gathered enough courage.”) This is an impossible situation because the speaker had not gathered enough courage and had not proposed marriage that night.

Alternatively, third conditionals may use the modal forms “could have,” “might have,” and “should have,” as in these variants of the example above: “If I had gathered enough courage, I could have proposed marriage last night.” “If I had gathered enough courage, I might have proposed marriage last night.”

Zero conditional. This talks about a condition whose result is always true and always the same, like a scientific fact; in short, it’s a certainty. Here,  the “if” 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: “If people stop breathing, they die very shortly.” (“People die very shortly if they stop breathing.”)

This winds up our quick review of the conditionals.

This essay, 1035th in the series, first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Education Section of the March 30, 2017 issue (print edition only) of The Manila Times, © 2017 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: March 30, 2017, 02:16:49 PM by jciadmin » Logged

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