Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Grammar Notes: First & Second Conditionals

If you read this post, you'll soon know the difference between first and second conditionals (or 'if conditionals'). 

So if I were you, I would continue reading and by the end you'll know precisely when and how to use them. 

The sentences above are two examples of conditional sentences. Native English speakers use them all the time without even thinking but we often get them confused. It is no surprise then, that students learning English have difficulties knowing when to use them. So I will explain both conditionals individually and then compare the two using real life scenarios. 

First Conditional 

We use first conditional for real situations in the present or the future. We use them to show the likely consequence of a future event or action. 

Example:  'If I have time, I will help you' 
> We can infer that there is a possibility that the person speaking may have free time and so will be able to help. 
★  ★  

Second Conditional 

We use Second Conditional for improbable situations or where the conditions for the hypothetical future event do not exist

Look at the example from the box above >  If I had time, I would help you' 
> Here, we can infer that the person speaking does not have time or that they have a busy day and so it is unlikely that they will be able to help. 
★  ★  

Here is another example: 'If I were you, I would change jobs'  
> In this example, I am not you and obviously it is impossible that I will become you and so we use Second Conditional

But why do we use 'were' in this example? The past simple of 'I am' is 'I was' not 'I were' so why is it here? 

Well, here is the explanation...

Although the verb following the 'IF' clause looks like Past Simple it is actually the Imperfect SubjunctiveNow don't panic or stop reading! Imperfect Subjunctive sounds very complicated but it isn't (I promise!) 

Thankfully, the imperfect subjunctive and past simple are exactly the same. Phew! 

BUT there is one important exception --> The verb 'TO BE' 
So in the Imperfect Subjunctive, the verb 'To Be' is 'WERE' for all persons. 

Example:  'If I were you, I would wear a coat' (and not 'If I was you') 

Extra Note for Italian Speakers: We often use 'if I were you' for giving advice (consiglio) and for Italian speakers this translates as 'se io fossi te' 

★  ★  

Example #1

Example: 'If I win the lottery, I will buy a car' (First Conditional)
> I have a ticket and the lottery is today. Therefore there is a possibility that I could win. 

Example: 'If I won the lottery, I would buy a car' (Second Conditional) 
> I do not have a lottery ticket. The ticket does not exist. So this is hypothetical and very unlikely. 

★  ★  
Example #2

The first example was given by in his useful series of youtube videos. In one video he compares the first and second conditionals using the example of a teacher speaking to a good student and then a bad student. 

Teacher speaking to a Good Student >  'If you study, you'll pass your exams' 

> Here, the teacher knows the student will study because they are hard-working and they always listen to the teacher. 

> So in this example, we use the First Conditional because the future event is likely (the student is going to study) and therefore the consequence is likely to happen (the student will pass the exams). 

★  ★  

Teacher Speaking to a Bad Student > 'If you studied, you would pass your exams.'

> Here the teacher knows the student won't study (because he is lazy) and therefore the future consequence (passing exams) is unlikely. 

> So, in this example we use the Second Conditional because the future event is unlikely and therefore the possible consequence (passing exams) has a low probability. 

★  ★  

I hope you found this post useful. If you have any questions or problems, 
please let me know and I'll do my best you help. 

I'd also like to thank @effibold for her advice on this topic : D 


  1. so nice to learn English from it's native. thank you from Indonesia =)

    1. I'm very happy that you found it useful. If you have any questions or even ideas for new posts, let me know! Have a wonderful day! x x

  2. Hi Sarita, I'm so glad you came across my blog as it's given me the chance the find yours! I especially like this article you've written as my boyfriend is Italian and although his english is great we do still try to find ways to explain english language and get him better! thank you so much! ciao! nancy

    1. Hi Nancy! Hopefully I'll write some more English grammar and pronunciation posts when I have time - I'll let you know when I do. Any suggestions for problem areas? I'd love to help if I can : D ciao ciao!

  3. If you studied, you would pass your exams.'

    i would prefer this:

    If you had studied ,

    1. The only problem with 'had studied' is that it then becomes 3rd conditional, meaning it is in the past rather than a possible future event.

  4. I have a question regarding the second condional. Would it be possible to say "If you didn't enjoy this movie you most likeely will not like that"?

    1. Yes it would be possible to say 'If you didn't enjoy this movie, you probably won't enjoy that' which is an interesting mixed conditional. Technically, using 'wouldn't' might be better (to make it more like 2nd) but as it's an odd conditional (with one part actually in the past, and the other a very likely consequence in the future) I think people in conversation could use either and it would sound correct. Hope that helps.

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  6. What about the "If I would..." phrase so many native speakers of English use? (Especially Americans.) I would say it's not the correct form, but then again... so many people use conditionals this way.

    *If I would be more beautiful, I could wear the hijab.
    If I were more beautiful, I could wear the hijab.

    Actually, it could even be "if I was more beautiful" in this case, because it's not something impossile:

    If I was beautiful/rich/older etc... (because it is possible that you'll look better, get rich or grow older)

    However, you must say

    If I were a black guy,... (because it is more or less out of question that you'll wake up as a black guy tomorrow).

    I loved this post, grammar is fascinating, isn't it?

    ps.: I will never understand how some people do not have the slightest grasp of the grammar of their own native language. How can anybody with English as their mother tongue use the phrase "I would/could of done that"??? It simply means they do not understand the structure they are using. But if they don't, how can they get their message across? The same applies to the "its" and "it's" thingy, though that is quite another cup of tea gramativcally. :)

  7. Hi! I think you made a mistake, because the ¨infinitive¨ is to and the base form of the verb. In the first conditional we can´t say, if it rains tomorrow I will to be wet, we have to just say I will be wet. I think you mean to say that we just have to use the future tense, but not with the infinitive.


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