Easy English Grammar

How to master first second and third conditionals in English

How to Master First Second and Third Conditionals in English

Are you confused about the first, second and third conditionals (‘if’ sentences) in English? What are they? How do they work? What’s the difference between them?

Here’s a simple way to look at the first, second and third conditionals.

But first — take a look at these pictures. What do you think the people are saying?

two people and a rabbit

a rabbit attacking a person

First Second and Third Conditionals

OK. We’ll come back to these lovely people later…

Now – conditionals!

The first thing you need to know about the conditionals is that they are all the same!

Here’s how:

  1. They all have two parts: the ‘if’ part, and the ‘result’ part.
  2. They all have the same general structure: ‘If + tense, modal’ (modals are words like can, will, would, could and may).

 

if part (if + tense), result part (modal)

So let’s check this out in in more detail.

Have a look at the first conditional and think about the structure.

If you play with that rabbit, you'll regret it.

Pretty simple, right?

First Conditional:

If you play with that rabbit, you'll regret it.

This is the basis for ALL the other conditionals.

But when do we use it? We use the first conditional for real situations that can happen in the future.

So what about unreal situations? In English if we want to express something unreal, we have a trick: We push the grammar to the past.

So from the first conditional we push the tense and the modal to the past:

If I were you, I wouldn't touch that rabbit. Really man. Don't do it.

This is the second conditional.

It’s the same as the first, but we just pushed the tense and the modal to the past. So the present became the past and ‘will’ became ‘would’.

Second Conditional:

If I were you, I wouldn't touch that rabbit.

But when do we use it? We use the second conditional for things that can’t happen now or probably won’t happen in the future.

“OK. That’s all fine,” I can hear you say. But what do we do when we want to express something ‘unreal’ AND in the past? Well that’s the fun part.

We push the past to the ‘double-past’ and the ‘would’ to the past. It sounds mad, doesn’t it? But here we go:

If you had listened to me, the rabbit wouldn't have bitten you.

This is the third conditional. It’s still the same as the first, but we’ve pushed the tense and the modal to the past twice instead of once.

Third conditional:

If + past perfect, would have verb 3.

But when do we use it?

We use the third conditional for things that never happened and the possible results.

“Wait… What?!! That’s crazy! Two ‘verb3s’ AND a ‘had’ AND a ‘have’?!” …I hear you scream.

Yes, I know it’s a little tricky at first. When I learned Turkish, there were lots of times when I felt like this. But then I realised that if I practice it only a few times, it gets easy quickly.

So here are all three conditionals together in a pretty infographic:

First Second and Third Conditionals

“OK. But what about the scissors? Why did you put scissors in the images?” I can hear you ask.

This is the fun part about conditionals. You can cut them up…

Word Order in Conditionals

…and move them around. Like this:

Word Order in Conditionals 2

So — “If you play with that rabbit, you’ll regret it” is the same as “You’ll regret it if you play with that rabbit”. Enjoy!!

Action plan

Find an English-speaking friend or a teacher. Speak casually with him/her and try to “slip in” (use) the first, second and third conditionals.

* Weird English alert! We can say ‘I was’ or ‘I were’ ONLY in the second conditional. Don’t ask me why. English is just weird sometimes.

6 thoughts on “How to master first second and third conditionals in English

    1. Hi Melita,

      Yes. I really wanted to include mixed conditionals as well as the zero conditional in this post, but there just wasn’t space.

      But here are the two most common “mixed conditionals”:

      FORM: present perfect + will (or modal)
      WHY? To express something that finished in the past, but the effect’s still important now as the condition (see my present perfect post).
      EXAMPLE: If you’ve finished, we can go.

      FORM: past perfect + would
      WHY? To talk about a hypothetical past situation, but with the hypothetical result being now.
      EXAMPLE: If I’d listened to my mother, I wouldn’t be in this mess.

      Thanks for reading and I hope that helped!

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