If I were to ask you to start a sentence with “if” in Spanish, what would you say?
Would you scream and run away?
I know conditionals frighten a lot of students, and many learners tend to avoid them as much as they can when speaking. Nevertheless, you can’t get to fluency without knowing them.
But don’t worry, I’m here to help. I’ll show you how to navigate your way through the different forms of the conditional so you can start talking about all the possibilities that have opened up for you, and more.
- What Are Spanish Conditionals?
- Something That’s Always True: The Spanish Zero Conditional
- Possible or Likely Situations: The Spanish First Conditional
- Unreal or Hypothetical Situations: The Spanish Second Conditional
- Imaginary Situations in the Past: The Spanish Third Conditional
What Are Spanish Conditionals?
Spanish conditionals usually involve the word si (if). Note the difference between this “si,” meaning “if” (no accent), and the “sí” with an accent, which means “yes.”
There are two clauses, or parts, in a conditional: the if clause and the main clause. This is the same in English. Let’s take the following example: “If I had a lot of time, I would learn Spanish conditionals perfectly.”
The first half of the sentence is the if clause, the second half after the comma is the main clause. If we translate this sentence into Spanish, we’ll get a very similar sentence with two clauses. “Si tuviera mucho tiempo, aprendería los verbos condicionales en español perfectamente.“
If I wanted to, I could give at least one million more examples of conditional sentences with two clauses. But I think you get the idea. Don’t forget it’s also possible to switch the order of the main and the if clause, so you could also say, “Aprendería los verbos condicionales en español perfectamente si tuviera mucho tiempo.”
Like in English, Spanish conditionals can indicate varying degrees of possibility in the present, future and past. They can talk about things that might happen in the future, things that didn’t happen in the past and things that couldn’t possibly happen but we like to talk about them anyway. An example of this last time is the common advice giving structure, “Si yo fuera tú…” (If I were you…), which is clearly impossible—you will never be me—but we still use it.
It is possible to divide both Spanish and English conditionals into four categories: zero, first, second and third conditionals. It might seem strange to think about four types of conditional, but I assure you that you use these conditionals in English all the time, so don’t panic. Unlike when you learn the Spanish subjunctive, there is no new concept of possibility for you to get your head around.
If you combine these types of conditionals together, you get super duper mixed conditional sentences, like the kind where you’re talking about how your imaginary past affects your imaginary present. But let’s not worry about that for now. First things first, what is a zero conditional?
Something That’s Always True: The Spanish Zero Conditional
This conditional is used in both Spanish and English to talk about things that are always or usually true. The most common example given in English textbooks is “If you heat water, it boils,” or “Si calientas el agua, hierve.” This sentence does serve to demonstrate our point, but it’s not one that you’ll need to say very often, because, well, it’s always true and it’s obvious.
I prefer a sentence you’ll see a lot of if you happen to visit Buenos Aires. Many big billboards say, “Si llueve, no sacamos la basura.” (If it rains, we don’t take out the trash). Now this is not a universal truth, but it’s true in Buenos Aires, and therefore we need to use the zero conditional.
To make the zero conditional, you need the present tense: simple present in the if clause, and simple present in the main clause.
Si + [simple present], [simple present]
Si sabes el presente, sabes el condicional zero. Forgotten how to form the present tense? See this post for a recap.
Possible or Likely Situations: The Spanish First Conditional
The first conditional is far more useful than the zero. Use this tense when you want to talk about how something is possible or likely, assuming that a certain condition in met.
For example, to focus on rain and its detrimental affect on our daily lives once more: “Si llueve mañana, no iré al banco.” (If it rains tomorrow, I won’t go to the bank). The person listening to this first sentence might then respond with: “¿Si te compro un paraguas, irás al banco?” (If I buy you an umbrella, will you go to the bank?).
Of course, these sentences in succession are unlikely unless you are living in a Spanish textbook, but sometimes it’s good to pretend life were that simple and that people go ’round buying each other umbrellas all the time.
To form the first conditional, you will need the present tense for your if clause, and the future tense for your main clause.
Si + [present tense], [future tense]
Remember that with all of these you can flip the order of the clauses, but be sure to lose the comma if you do so, just as you would in English:
[future tense] + si + [present tense]
No iré al banco si llueve mañana. (I won’t go to the bank if it rains tomorrow.)
Forgotten how to form the future tense?
The future tense in Spanish
The simple future tense is pretty, err, simple. Just add é, ás, á, emos, éis, án to your verb. You don’t even have to get rid of the ar/ir/er endings, plus it’s the same for all three types of verbs! Easy, right?
So there you go. Si estudias eso, entenderás el primer condicional (If you study that, you’ll understand the first conditional).
At this point, if you’re not sure how to use this grammar concept just yet, it’s helpful to see it in context to really understand it. You can do this by watching authentic Spanish content, the kind made for and by native speakers. That way, you can see the conditional as it’s used in real conversations.
You can check out Spanish content on Netflix or Youtube, and pay careful attention to instances of the conditional. There’s also the language learning program FluentU, which has a library of authentic videos that come with interactive captions. Clicking on a word or phrase opens an entry containing its definition, basic grammatical details and example sentences. You can also search for a word, like si, to see videos that show it in action.
Unreal or Hypothetical Situations: The Spanish Second Conditional
The second conditional is where things get a little more complicated. This is the tense that you use when you’re daydreaming about possibilities that probably won’t happen in real life.
For example, if your friend asks you if you want to go traveling on a round-the-world vacation for a whole year, you might say, “Si tuviera la plata, iría contigo” (If I had the money, I’d go with you). That is, of course, if—like most of us—you have reasons why you can’t go on vacation for a whole year.
Let’s say it’s likely that you’ll have the money. Firstly, you are a very lucky person and secondly, you need to use the first conditional. “Si tengo la plata, iré contigo” (If I have the money, I’ll go with you), or you could just say yes and start packing.
In order to make the second conditional you need the imperfect subjunctive and the conditional tense.
Si + [imperfect subjunctive], [conditional]
Sound tricky? It’s really not so bad once you break it down:
The Spanish imperfect subjunctive
To make the imperfect subjunctive, you need the same stem of the verb as you would have in the “they” form of the simple past tense (preterite). So for example, tener in the “they” form (3rd person, plural) in the preterite is “tuvieron.“
Take off the ending “-ron” and you have your stem “tuvie-“
Use this stem to add –ra, -ras, -ra, -ramos, -rais, -ran and you’ve got your imperfect subjunctive! Please take note of the accent mark now needed in the nosotros form.
So tener becomes:
A second option—more commonly used in Spain than in other countries—is to add –se, -ses, -se, -semos, -seis, -sen.
So tener becomes:
It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with both sets of endings, and then choose one and stick to it.
The Spanish conditional tense
The conditional tense in Spanish is formed by adding an ending to the infinitive of the verb (like in the simple future). Just add ía, ías, ía, íamos, íais, ían. So the verb hablar becomes:
I find this is a particularly pleasing tense to roll off the tongue. Note that several important verbs like tener and haber are irregular in the conditional tense and become tendría and habría, respectively.
So just add those two tenses together, stick an “if” in there, and you’ve got it.
Si fuera tú, estudiaría las reglas. (If I were you, I’d study the rules.)
Of course, I will never be you, hence the use of the second conditional. Here’s another:
Si pudiera hablar alemán, iría a Alemania. (If I could speak German, I would go to Germany.)
Imaginary Situations in the Past: The Spanish Third Conditional
The third conditional is probably the trickiest. Use it when you want to talk about a situation that did not happen in the past, but has imaginary consequences. Now you might think that wouldn’t be very useful when you put it like that.
But if your parents had spoken to you in Spanish when you were a baby, you wouldn’t have had to learn it at school. You might find you want to reflect on your imaginary past life like this more often. And to do that you’ll need the third conditional.
To make the third conditional, take the imperfect subjunctive that we saw above, and turn it into the past perfect subjunctive
Si + [past perfect subjunctive], [past perfect subjunctive].
The past perfect subjunctive is also called the pluperfect subjunctive—which, for the curious folk, comes from the delightful Spanish name of this tense: el pretérito pluscuamperfecto subjuntivo.
“And how do you expect me to do that?,” I hear you cry. Well, seeing as you asked…
Past perfect subjuntive
The past or pluperfect subjunctive is a mix of the imperfect subjunctive of the verb haber and the past participle of the main verb.
hubieras hubierais + past participle of the main verb (-ado/-ido)
To make the past participle, add -ido to the stem of -er/-ir verbs (e.g. tener→ tenido, vivir→ vivido) and -ado to the stem of -ar verbs (e.g. amar→ amado).
Together you then have hubiera/hubiese amado (I would have loved), which you can use to make conditional sentences like:
Si hubiera/hubiese tenido más tiempo, hubiera/hubiese viajado más. (If I had had more time, I would have traveled more.)
This sentence sounds a little like something one might say while on one’s deathbed, and indeed the third conditional is often used to express regret about the past.
Instead of having both clauses in the pluperfect subjunctive, you could also have the second clause in the conditional perfect tense (the conditional plus the past perfect). So you could say,
Si hubiera/hubiese tenido más tiempo, habría viajado más. This translates into the same as before.
Once you get your head around these three basic types of conditionals, you’ll notice that it is possible to combine the conditionals together. For example:
Si hubiera estudiado más antes, no necesitaría estudiar ahora.
Here we’ve mixed the third and second conditional, since the things that you did or didn’t do in your imaginary past can also affect your imaginary present.
Confused? Think about it in English: If I had studied more before, I wouldn’t need to study now. It makes perfect sense. Now that you’ve got the idea, you can now begin to construct your own imaginary situations with a variety of conditional sentences, the possibilities are endless!