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Primary English Tips | Grammar: If Conditionals

GrammarLily Chew2 Comments

Today, let's talk about 'If' conditionals. (e.g. If it rains, we will cancel the match.)

If cats were humans... unfortunately cats will only be cats. source: emmacarlisle

If cats were humans... unfortunately cats will only be cats.

source: emmacarlisle


There are three general types of 'If' conditionals.

1. The situation is open and still possible.
(present tense + present tense ~ will)

If it rains, we will cancel the match.
If my father callstell him I am not well.

2. The situation is unreal or unlikely (or even impossible). 
(were*/ past tense + past tense ~ would)

If I were a millionaire, I would buy an ice cream parlour. 
If she were the president, she would not let the people go hungry. 
If Alice were coming, she would be here by now.

*were is to be used for all subjects even if it is singular in unlikely situations.

3. The situation is over but you are talking about how it could have been.
(past perfect tense + past tense ~ would have)

If you had told me earlier, we would not have eaten dinner on our own. (but you did not and we already did.)
If we had known the truth, we would have told you. 


Basically, the tenses used throughout the sentence should be consistent. Hence, look out for the 'tense word' in the sentence.

If I find the ring, I will return it. (Present tense)
If I found the ring, I would return it. (Past tense)
If I had found the ring, I would have returned it. (Past perfect tense)


Most pupils do not have difficulty getting the right answer once they can pick out the 'tense word' in the sentence. Below are 2 kinds of questions that require more caution:

1. Do take extra care if the past perfect tense (Third Conditional) is used as "would have" will need to follow usually.

If you had given me the keys, I would have been home earlier. (not I would be home earlier)

2. However, what often is tested and goes wrong is when an unreal or unlikely conditional question is tested.

If I _________ a bird, I would fly towards the sky.

Most pupils will recognise that the past tense needs to be used and seeing the pronoun 'I', they will often choose "was" as the answer.
However, due to this being an unreal or unlikely situation (i.e I can never be a bird), the answer is actually "were" and this exception is valid even for other singular pronouns e.g. Alice, she, he, it.

If I were a bird, I would fly towards the sky.
If he were a bird, he would fly towards the sky.

One key thing to take note of is to judge whether the situation is unreal/unlikely. For example, the statement below will have different impact when spoken by two different characters.

School boy : If I became president, there would not be any homework given in school. (Unlikely to happen, at least at the time of speaking)
Presidential candidate: If I become president, there will not be any homework given in school. (Likely to happen)

Due to the the presidential candidate's likelihood (or possibility) of becoming a president, his statement can take on the present tense. 

Knowing these rules when answering If-conditionals will make it a breeze. Remember, make sure the tenses match!