What would you do if you were rich?
What do I mean? It’s a confusing sentence.
That question is asking you to do two things: (1) imagine that you’re rich and (2) imagine what you will do as a rich person.
You can reply: “If I were rich, I would fly first class to Hawaii. I would buy a car! I would travel all over the world.”
But don’t get too excited, it’s all imaginary.
You’re not rich. It’s all in your mind!
In English grammar, this kind of imaginary sentence is called a conditional sentence.
We use conditionals to talk about imaginary situations in the past, present and future.
We use conditionals for situations that might happen in the future, or situations that might never happen.
We use conditionals for actions in the past that cannot be changed.
Conditionals are a little difficult to master, but they’re extremely useful to learn.
Luckily, with some basic knowledge and a lot of practice, you will soon be able to use conditionals as if you were a native English speaker.
Imagine This: You Can Understand English Conditional Sentences in 5 Steps
1. Listen for would and if
All conditionals use the word if, and often at the start of the sentence.
When you’re listening or reading in English and the word if appears, there’s a strong chance that it’s a conditional sentence.
Next, listen or look for the word would. Not all conditional sentences contain the word would, but most do. Some conditionals use will instead of would, so look out for that word too.
If you see if and would/will in one sentence, you know you have a conditional sentence to deal with.
2. Break up the sentence into simple pieces
Once you recognize a conditional sentence, you can make it easier to understand by separating it into two clauses (two main parts of the sentence).
The two clauses of a conditional sentence are: (1) the if clause and (2) the would (or will) clause.
Here’s another example of a conditional sentence.
- If you exercised every day, you would be so fit.
Break up the sentence into two parts, separated by the comma in the middle.
- If you exercised every day, (first clause)
- you would be so fit. (second clause)
Now it should be easier to understand. The if clause is the condition—it’s the thing that must happen first.
The would clause can only happen as a result of the if clause. You would only be fit if you exercised every day. If you don’t exercise, you will not be fit.
Fitness, like English, requires hard work.
3. Learn the different types of conditional sentences
There are three basic types of conditional sentences, and they are named type 1, type 2, and type 3.
Luckily, the names are at least easy to remember.
Each type of conditional sentence has slightly different grammar and has a different purpose.
Type 1 conditional:
A type 1 conditional is a possible situation which could happen.
We use type 1 conditionals to express realistic situations, plans and things that are very likely to happen if we do something. Unlike the previous examples, a type 1 conditional uses will instead of would. Usually this conditional uses present tense verbs in both clauses too.
- If I eat all the chocolate, I will feel sick tomorrow.
In that example, I’m imagining a situation that will certainly happen. I will definitely feel sick tomorrow if I eat all that chocolate. Maybe I shouldn’t eat that chocolate, then.
- If I study hard, I will pass the exam.
Hard work pays off. Passing an exam is the likely result of studying hard.
Type 2 conditional:
This one is a little more difficult. Type 2 conditionals express things that probably will not happen. These can be imaginary things that are simply impossible, or just very unlikely.
In this case, we use would.
The verb in the if clause is in the past tense, but the verb in the would clause is in the present tense.
- If I bought a Ferrari, I would have no money left.
A Ferrari is so expensive that it would cost all the money I have. But it would be crazy to buy a Ferrari. I can only imagine buying one, but I would never consider it in reality. Because of this, I have used a type 2 conditional.
- If I were you, I would not be rude to the boss.
In this example, I’m giving someone advice by imagining myself in their position—”If I were you…”—and then telling them what I would do in their position. I’m telling someone to be polite to the boss, using a type 2 conditional to imagine how I would act in their position.
“If I were you…” is a great way to give advice in English.
Type 3 conditional:
The type 3 conditional is more confusing. In this sentence we’re talking about a situation in the past, and actions that cannot be changed. It’s often used to express a feeling of regret. The would clause uses a perfect infinitive verb (have done, have taken), and the if clause uses a past perfect verb (had done, had taken).
- If I had studied harder as a teenager, I would have gone to a better university.
In a type 3 conditional every action is in the past, and nothing in the sentence happened. I didn’t study hard as a teenager, so I didn’t go to a better university. I can’t change anything now, but I wish I could.
- If you had eaten breakfast, you would have felt fine this morning.
Did you eat breakfast this morning? No. Did you feel fine? No, you felt terrible. You should have eaten breakfast.
4. Be flexible
The grammar in conditional sentences may be strict, but the order of the if and would clauses is not. You can switch them around and the sentence will still have the exact same meaning.
- If I had more time, I would learn kick-boxing.
- I would learn kick-boxing if I had more time.
These two sentences mean exactly the same thing, so relax—you don’t need to worry about the order of your clauses.
5. Practice with mixed conditionals
Sometimes when we talk about actions in the past, a type 3 conditional isn’t exactly what we need.
In a type 3 conditional, everything is in the past and finished.
But what do you do if you’re talking about imaginary actions in the past that affect the present?
You need to change your grammar and used a mixed conditional.
Here’s an example:
- If I had married that rich woman, I would be rich too!
Notice how the if clause uses a past participle, like a type 3 conditional, but the would clause uses the present tense verb be. That’s because if I had married the rich woman in the past, the action would still affect me in the present. I would be rich today too!
Why didn’t I marry that rich woman?
Conditionals can be confusing, but they’re a wonderful and essential part of using English well.
With a good understanding of conditionals you can talk confidently about imaginary situations.
You can suggest a proposal and talk about its possible results. You can talk about any number of impossible, wonderful, funny things.
You can reflect on your actions and talk about things you wish you could change.
Congratulations—now you’re one step closer to speaking English like a native!