IELTS Grammar: Conditional sentences.

How to use zero, 1st, 2nd and 3rd conditionals (if sentences)

There are four kinds of conditional sentences. The zero conditional describes real or specific situations, while unreal Conditionals describe unreal, imaginary situations or hopes for the future. With unreal conditionals there is a difference in the likelihood of them happening, however, they don’t refer to the past. The 3rd conditional is for past regret, how something could be different or a past hypothetical situation.

Conditional sentences are very useful structures in IELTS as they are seen by the examiner as complex sentences and are often included in a natural conversation. This comes in very handy in the IELTS speaking section when talking about your daily life, talking about possibilities and expressing regret or a hypothetical past.


Zero Conditional

This is used to talk about what you normally do in real-life situations or a specific situation.

  • The structure is: If + Present verb + Present verb (notice we can also use adverbs of frequency such as ‘usually, often, tend to, sometimes’ )

Examples:

  • If I go to a friend’s house for dinner, I sometimes take a bottle of wine.
  • If I have time off, I usually go to the beach.
  • If I go to bed late, I wake up feeling tired.
  • I read books if there is nothing on TV.
  • If I study too much, I tend to get a headache
  • If I wake up early, I often go for a run then check my emails.

Both “if” and “when” are used in the zero Conditional. Using “if” suggests that something happens less frequently. Using “when” suggests that something happens regularly.

Compare:
When
I have a day off, I usually go to the cinema.
(I tend to have days off)

If I have a day off, I usually go to the cinema.
(I don’t get many days off)


1st Conditional and 2nd Conditional

The 1st Conditional is used to talk about imaginary situations but the possibility is stronger.

  • The structure is: If + Present verb + Will

The 2nd Conditional is used to talk about imaginary situations but the possibility is weaker.

  • The structure is: If + Past verb + Would / Could

Examples:

1. If I win the lottery, I will buy a new car. (I do the lottery quite often and I expect to win one day)

2. If I won the lottery, I would buy a new car. (I do not expect to win)

In the first sentence above use the 1st conditional to express the stronger possibility and the second sentence expresses the weaker possibility. More examples below.

  • If I owned a car, I would drive to work. (I don’t own a car)
  • He would buy a car if he had more money. (He doesn’t have much money)
  • I would go to Hawaii if I had a vacation. (I don’t have any vacation this year)
  • If I got a Band 8 in IELTS, I could move to Canada. (I don’t expect to get a high score yet)

Punctuation note: Use a comma after the if-clause when the if-clause comes before the main clause. Compare the sentences below.

  • I would move to London if I got a high paying job.
  • If I got a high paying job, I would move to London.


So in a conversation if you are asked a question with a conditional, reply with a conditional sentence:

John: What would you do if you won the lottery?
Bob: If I won the lottery I would buy a house in London.

Anne: Where would you live if you could move to Europe?
Betty: I reckon I would live in Madrid, it’s a great city.

John: If you could change your job, what would you like to do?
Bob: I would like to be a Chef If I had the chance because I love cooking.


3rd Conditional

These are used when talking about how the present moment would be different if things had happened differently in the past. It is also useful when you talk about regrets or wishing something could be different.

  • The structure is: If + had + past participle + would have / could have + past participle

Examples:

  • If I had known you were in hospital, I would have paid you a visit.
    (I didn’t know you were in hospital)
  • If I had only backed up my PC, I wouldn’t have lost all my data.
    (I didn’t back up the PC and I lost my data)
  • I could have lent you some money if you had told me you were broke.
    ( I didn’t know you were broke)
  • I would have taken an umbrella if I had known it was going to rain.
    ( I didn’t know it was going to rain)
  • If I had known it was your sandwich, I wouldn’t have eaten it.
    (I had no idea it was his sandwich)
  • If I had studied medicine at college, I could have been a Doctor by now.
    (I didn’t study medicine)

Common mistake:

Wrong: If you would have given me your email, I would have been able to contact you quicker.

Right: If you had given me your email, I would have been able to contact you quicker.


Using ‘wish’ for emphasis:

This is commonly used to add emphasis that you have a regret about something. It can replace the word ‘if’ .

  • I wish I’d know you were in hospital, I would have come to visit you.
  • I wish I hadn’t bought that car, it’s always breaking down.
  • I wish I knew his email address, I would be able to let him know I’m visiting London.

Using ‘were to’ in an If sentence.

‘were to’ can be put into conditional sentences if you feel the outcome might be terrible or if it is something you don’t really want to think about.

  • If there were to be an economic crash, many people would lose their savings.
  • If he were to commit another crime, the police would send him to jail.
  • If we were to have been driving on ice, we wouldn’t have been able to stop in time.
  • If a large meteorite were to hit the Earth, I don’t think we would survive.

Exercise:

Are these sentences right or wrong? (4 of them are wrong)

  • James was heading for the airport and caught the bus just in time. If he would have missed the bus, he would have missed his flight.
  • Unfortunately, I didn’t have your email while I was on holiday. If I’d your email address, I would’ve sent you a message.
  • I wish I hadn’t told him the situation with John, now he just keeps gossiping to everyone about it.
  • If I could change my profession, I would like to be a farmer as I love being outdoors and working.
  • I wish I could bring my camera, this scenery is incredible.
  • If I go to bed late, I can’t really sleep well.
  • If we take the 11.14am train, we will arrive much earlier than we expected.
  • If you gave that cat too much food, he will vomit.

  • James was heading for the airport and caught the bus just in time. If he had missed the bus, he would have missed his flight.
  • Unfortunately, I didn’t have your email while I was on holiday. If I’d had your email address, I would’ve sent you a message.
  • I wish I hadn’t told him the situation with John, now he just keeps gossiping to everyone about it. (correct)
  • If I could change my profession, I would like to be a farmer as I love being outdoors and working. (correct)
  • I wish I had brought my camera, this scenery is incredible.
  • If I go to bed late, I can’t really sleep well. (correct)
  • If we take the 11.14am train, we will arrive much earlier than we expected. (correct)
  • If you give that cat too much food, he will vomit.


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