Conditional sentences express a consequence with a stated action. The conjunction “if” is often used to make conditional sentences.
There are four basic types of conditional sentences. Each one has its own specific grammar structure; using that grammar structure properly sends a subtle message from the writer to the reader. So it’s important to get the grammar right.
Similar to the simple present tense, this conditional expresses a truth. In fact, the grammar structure for this conditional uses two simple present tenses.
If Jack writes clearly, his readers understand his instructions better.
The first conditional speaks to a future action that is likely to happen. The conditional clause keeps the simple present tense, but the consequence becomes the simple future.
If Jack writes clearly, his readers will understand his instructions better.
In this case, the speaker anticipates that Jack will be a good writer.
The second conditional speaks to an action that is unlikely to happen. The tenses changed from simple present to simple past and simple future to tentative future.
If Jack wrote clearly, his readers would understand his instructions better.
In this case, the speaker believes that Jack won’t fulfill the action of writing clearly. There will be consequences.
The third conditional speaks to a possible action in the past, but the action was not fulfilled. The tenses to describe this time frame are past perfect and tentative present perfect.
If Jack had written clearly, his readers would have understood his instructions better.
In this case, Jack wrote some instruction in the past, which seem to have been less than adequate. There were consequences for Jack not putting in the appropriate effort.
BREAKING THE RULES
There are more forms of the conditional sentence. For example, just the simple future can signify a conditional sentence if the action is already understood by the writer and speaker.
This article will be published on Writerbeat*. . . .
. . . . . if I allow 48 hours to pass since my last article.
In this case, the publishing is still conditional on me following the rules — and restating the condition part of the sentence may not be necessary in certain contexts.
And the above example may also be a good example to break the rules, changing to the present perfect:
This article will be published on Writerbeat if I have allowed 48 hours to pass since my last article.
To my English brain, the present perfect sounds better here. I think the connection-between-the-past-and-present nature of this tense conveys a message that hitting that “PUBLISH” button now depends on what I have done in the recent past.
When getting in serious editing, I try to check my conditional sentences are in the right tense. I do occasionally find errors in my free writing, mixing up the tenses. If my conditionals are not in the correct grammatical form, I determine whether it’s better to break the rules of the four conditionals for this particular situation.
And that last sentence was a good Zero Conditional! They show up quite a bit in my writing for sure.
This article is the last in a four-part series of “Manage Your Grammar:” Pronouns, Noun Phrases, Verb Phrases, and Conditional Sentences. I hope you enjoy the lessons.
- * Writerbeat was an internet forum I had spent a lot of time with to promote my book. One rule on WB was 48 were required before publishing another article. WB attracted all sorts of thinkers from all over the political spectrum — and discussions were “lively.” Some thinkers were not great writers, and I wrote this series to offer some advice on better writing. While I got a good response from these articles, I’m not sure anyone took the lessons. Writerbeat now appears to have disappeared.