Wondering how to make sense of all the conditional tenses in English? We’re here to help! Here is an overview of the 5 major conditional tenses in English, how to structure them, and when to use them.

An overview of English conditional tenses

When learning English, conditional tenses are important for use in both speaking and writing. They are used to create cause and effect statements, otherwise known as “if, then” statements. The majority of conditional statements in English use a combination of the if clause + the main clause and come in five different forms. 

Here is a quick overview of all conditional forms:

Conditional Type Use case If clause tense Main clause tense
Zero General truths Present simple Present simple
Type 1 A likely condition with a probable result Present simple Future simple
Type 2 A hypothetical statement with a probable result Simple past Present conditional or present continuous conditional
Type 3 An unreal statement about the past with a probable result in the past Past perfect Present conditional or present continuous conditional
Mixed type An unreal statement about the past with a probable result in the present Past perfect or simple past Present conditional or present continuous conditional

The zero conditional

The zero conditional is sort of a non-conditional because it describes general facts, rather than statements with a probable outcome, hence the name “zero conditional”. In this case, both the if clause and the main clause use the present simple test. There is also the option to use “when” instead of “if” in the if clause without changing the meaning.

To structure for a zero conditional statement is as follows:

If + simple present verb, simple present verb.

If clause (real situation) Main clause (fact)
If it rains, it gets wet.
When you heat up ice, it melts.
If you freeze water, it becomes ice.


Type 1 conditional

The type 1 conditional refers to a present or future circumstance that is real, meaning a condition that is likely to happen and has a probable result. 

We use the following structure for a type one conditional: 

If + simple present verb, simple future verb

If clause (real situation) Main clause (likely to happen)
If you go out in the rain, you will get wet.
If he is late, he will miss the train.
If we don’t make dinner, we will be hungry.

Please also note when writing in English, that a comma separates the if and main clause for all conditional tenses when the if clause comes first. If you use the main clause first, then there is no comma.

Type 2 conditional

We use the type 2 conditional to explain a situation now or at any point in time in comparison with an imaginary situation not based on fact, basically a hypothetical statement with a probable result. 

There are two ways to form the type 2 conditional:

If + simple past verb, present conditional (would + infinitive verb)

or

If + simple past verb, present continuous conditional (would + be + -ing verb)

If clause (imaginary situation) Main clause (unsure if will happen)
If I spoke English, I would travel the world.
If you rained yesterday, you wouldn’t need to water the garden.
If you knew the truth, you wouldn’t be smiling.

To know whether to use the present conditional or present continuous conditional depends on context. If you’re speaking in general, then present conditional is more suitable, but if you’re speaking about that exact moment (now), then present continuous conditional makes more sense.

Type 3 conditional

The type 3 conditional refers to something that happened in the past that wasn’t real, meaning basically the opposite happened from what was stated. 

There are two ways to form the type 3 conditional:

If + past perfect verb, perfect conditional (would + have + past participle)

or

If + past perfect verb, perfect continuous conditional (would + have + been + -ing verb)

If clause (unreal situation) Main clause (probable result)
If my colleague hadn’t got the promotion, I would have been chosen instead.
If he hadn’t got a job in London, he would have been working in Milan.
If you hadn’t slept in so late, you wouldn’t have missed the bus.

To differentiate between perfect conditional and perfect continuous conditional again depends on context. Perfect conditional is suitable when it refers to one complete situation, whereas perfect continuous conditional describes an ongoing situation.

Mixed type conditional

A mixed conditional is used to convey a time in the past with an effect that’s ongoing in the present, basically an unreal statement about the past with a probable result in the present. 

There are four ways to form a mixed conditional (hence the name):

If + past perfect verb, present conditional (would + infinitive verb)

or

If + past perfect verb, perfect conditional (would + have + past participle)

or

If + simple past verb, present conditional (would + infinitive verb)

or

If + simple past verb, perfect conditional (would + have + past participle)

If clause (unreal situation) Main clause (ongoing effect)
If we had followed the map,  we wouldn’t be lost.
If I had studied harder at school,  I would have graduated.
If he didn’t love spicy food so much, he wouldn’t eat so much curry.
If you weren’t so afraid of heights, you would have climbed the tower.

As a native English speaker, I will admit this is one of the more complex parts of English grammar. But in most cases, the zero conditional, and type 1 and type 2 conditional statements are enough to suffice. For more complex structures and advanced learners, you can focus on polishing type 3 and mixed conditionals. As always, practice makes perfect!

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