Common mistakes learners make when forming conditional sentences
Four conditional forms
English has four conditional structures: the zero, first, second and third. In this post we’ll look at some common problems that students of English have with the structure of conditional sentences.
First of all, here’s a quick reminder of what conditional sentences are:
What are conditional sentences?
- We use a conditional sentence to say that one event depends on another event, i.e. that something can only happen if something else happens first.
- Conditionals sentences have two parts: the if–clause and the main clause.
- The main clause depends on the if-clause.
The zero conditional
In the zero conditional, both clauses are in the present tense. A common mistake is to use ‘will’ in the main clause:
- If people eat too much, they get fat.
they will get
- Water boils when it reaches 100°C.
it will reach
The first conditional
In the first conditional, we use the present simple in the if-clause and ‘will’ in the main clause. A very common error is to put ‘will’ in the if-clause:
- If you study more, your English will get better.
you will study
- If I see Peter, I’ll ask him.
I will see
The second conditional
This is used for hypothetical or improbable situations. We use the past simple in the if-clause and ‘would’ in the main clause.
Learners often make the mistake of putting ‘would’ in the if-clause*. In fact, this is one of the most common grammatical mistakes made by non-native speakers: I have heard Scandinavian and Dutch people who speak excellent English make this error repeatedly.
- If you studied more, your English would get better.
you would study
- If I had more time, I would take up golf.
I would have
* Note that native English speakers sometimes use ‘would’ in the if-clause when criticising people: If you would study more, your English would get better. This is not a grammar point most learners other than advanced-level learners need to focus on, however.
The third conditional
This is the most difficult conditional to master, probably as there are more auxiliary verbs to remember and the structure is therefore quite long. Again, ‘would’ should not be used in the if-clause:
- If you had studied more, your English would have improved.
you would have studied
Another thing worth mentioning about the third conditional is the number of times native English speakers make mistakes with its construction. These examples show us how some people incorrectly insert ‘have’ into the if-clause:
- If I’d known earlier, I wouldn’t have done it. (‘d = had)
I’d have known
There are, of course, other errors which are common when learners use conditional sentences. I have outlined only the most frequent mistakes concerning structure.
Go to our grammar section to see more examples of conditional sentences.