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 ifclause and the main clause.
  • The main clause depends on the if-clause.

Common mistakes

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.

Learn more

Go to our grammar section to see more examples of conditional sentences.

Stuart is an English teacher and runs the Speakspeak website. He currently lives in Prague and has been teaching for over 20 years. See all posts by Stuart

37 Comments

  1. fb - July 27, 2012, 1:16 pm Reply

    “If you would study more, your English would get better” may be wrong – but wouldn’t it be correct (or at least acceptable) in a question expressing politeness? “If you would help me out, I would be delighted?”

    • Stuart Cook - July 27, 2012, 1:27 pm Reply

      That’s correct. It’s a good example of when we CAN use ‘if’ and ‘would’ together in a conditional sentence – when we make a polite request.

      Another example is when we say ‘if only’ to express exasperation: ‘I only you would be more patient – it would help everyone.’

    • norida norbi - December 4, 2014, 5:37 am Reply

      thanks for the simple and useful guidance.

      • Stuart Cook - December 7, 2014, 10:16 pm Reply

        Thanks for stopping by and reading the article, Norida.

  2. terry sando - August 14, 2012, 11:25 pm Reply

    if i was/were a rich man ……
    is this a conditional tense?
    is was correct?

    • Stuart Cook - August 17, 2012, 8:01 pm Reply

      ‘If I was a rich man’ / ‘If I were a rich man’ are both second conditional. Some authorities and books insist that only ‘were’ is acceptable. However, both are widely used by native speakers today: ‘if I was’ is considered colloquial and less formal than ‘if I were’.

      • Mary Reed - February 12, 2013, 5:21 pm Reply

        If I were a rich man, I would…. Here we are using what is called the subjunctive mode. The subjunctive mode is used widely in other languages. Think about it’s use in The Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom COME, Thy will BE DONE.” This is an example of using the subjunctive mode to make a request. If an eighty-year-old man begins a sentence with “if I were a young man” he is using the subjunctive mode correctly because he is not, in fact, a young man. This kind of use for the subjunctive is one of the few left in the the English language. Native speakers of Spanish will note that Spanish retains many more uses of the subjunctive than does English. I still insist on the “if I were” construction.

  3. FERNANDA CONTI CAJAL - August 30, 2012, 4:02 pm Reply

    iF THERE HAD BEEN TAXIS, I WOULDN´T HAVE COME BY BUS.

    OR

    IF THERE HAD BEEN TAXIS , I WOULDN´T HAD COME BY BUS.

    I HAVE A DOUBT ABOUT THIRD CONDITIONAL.
    I KNOW THAT THE FIRST SENTENCE IS THE CORRECT ONE BUT I HAVE READ AND LISTENED TO SOME NATIVES SPEAK USING THE SECOND EXAMPLE.
    IT´S A COMMON MISTAKE, OR IS IT CORRECT???

    • Stuart Cook - August 31, 2012, 8:04 am Reply

      Thanks for the question, Fernanda. ‘I wouldn’t have come’ is correct, while ‘I wouldn’t had come’ is always wrong.

      I don’t think I’ve ever heard a native speaker say ‘I wouldn’t HAD come’. It’s more usual for people to make a mistake in the ‘if’ clause by inserting an unnecessary ‘have’: they say ‘if there’d have been a taxi’, when they should just say ‘if there’d been a taxi’ (without ‘have’).

  4. Summer - December 6, 2012, 9:54 pm Reply

    Excelente for mi!! It’s Very explained or so clear the usage of conditional mood!! Thanks a lot!!

  5. Roberto - May 8, 2013, 8:21 am Reply

    Thank you for excellent explanation! Thank a lot!

  6. vk.murugesan - June 30, 2013, 7:50 am Reply

    Thank a lot

  7. manoj india - August 6, 2013, 8:24 pm Reply

    Thanks a lot sir.

  8. marchwind - January 30, 2014, 7:56 am Reply

    My friend insists that “If I would have known, I would have told you. ” is a correct third conditional. I know that most Americans use this form but I tried to tell her it was incorrect. She studied English and Linguistics in college and refuses to cede to point, saying I am talking about British English and that it’s perfectly correct in American English. I know it’s colloquial, but it’s NOT correct.

    • Stephanie - July 19, 2014, 3:42 pm Reply

      A person’s perspective on the “correctness” of language might depend on what kind of linguistics she studied. If she is a descriptive linguist, she may be less concerned with what’s considered “correct” and more concerned with what people actually do with language. At some point, what people actually do will evolve into what’s considered correct, whether we like it or not. 😉 I’m not always the biggest fan of this–I was horrified by the recent acceptance of “literally” for strong emphasis–but it’s the way language works and there’s just about no way to stop it.

  9. lnkd.in - June 9, 2014, 7:21 pm Reply

    lnkd.in

    Common mistakes learners make when forming conditional sentences

  10. Stephanie - July 19, 2014, 3:37 pm Reply

    “If I’d have known earlier, I wouldn’t have done it. (‘d = had)”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think ‘d still equals WOULD here, not HAD. Nobody would say “If I had have known earlier, I wouldn’t have done it.” Or are you perhaps saying that people don’t recognize that ‘d can take the place of either WOULD or HAD, and that causes this error?

    Regardless, this is an excellent resource and really helpful for me as a teacher.

    • Stuart Cook - July 22, 2014, 11:41 pm Reply

      Hi, Stephanie
      I think you’re right when you say that people making that error are using would rather than had. I wrote ‘d = had in the example to indicate that the ‘d represents would once have is removed. It’s a little confusing, I admit.

      Either way, the problem seems to be that learners (and many native speakers, it must be said) incorrectly identify the ‘d contraction.

  11. Ghanshyam Patel - July 22, 2014, 3:39 am Reply

    Dear Sir,

    your lesson is excellent and more useful in speaking english.

    I would like to know the different between all conditional sentence.

    If you describe in more details, it would be easy to learn.

  12. Elena - August 13, 2014, 4:41 pm Reply

    Greetings,
    I have a question about transforming first into third conditional for a specific sentence,this is for law school. The sentence goes like this: If he had been charged with a breach of the by-law, he could have claimed that it was invalid and the court would then have had to determine its validity before it could have decided wether he has/had commited an offence. Which one is correct,has or had and why? And is the rest of it alright?
    Thank you for your time.

    • Stuart Cook - August 15, 2014, 1:05 pm Reply

      Hello, Elena
      It should be . . . whether he had committed an offence. This is the past perfect tense, as we’re speaking in the past and the committing of the offence happened before the court decided. You could call it ‘the past before the past’, if you like.
      There’s a small error before that, too: before it could decide, not before it could have decided.

      Hope that helps.

  13. Louise - September 23, 2014, 4:30 pm Reply

    Good day!Can I use your examples for my research paper.Thank you:)

  14. Kinga - December 2, 2014, 4:59 pm Reply

    Is there any chance this sentence is correct- as polite version?

    If you would be interested in the offer please send me your documents.

    • Stuart Cook - December 7, 2014, 10:38 pm Reply

      It should be If you ARE interested, please send me . . . .
      As a polite alternative, you could say Should you be interested in . . . , please . . . .

  15. emmanuel godwin - December 11, 2014, 11:31 pm Reply

    i really love your lesson wit passion sir,thanks a lot

  16. Marcin Osinski - March 10, 2015, 1:38 pm Reply

    Hi Stuart,
    I had a talk with a group of soldiers, and they asked some specific questions about conditionals. Expressions starting with ‘If I were a soldier’ and ‘If I had to face the enemy on the battlefield’ seem to be easy, but how about hypothesizing about past historical events? ‘If I fought in the WWII’ or ‘If I had fought in the WWII’? ‘If I had been fighting in the Prague uprising’ or ‘If I fought in the Prague uprising’?
    Any suggestions welcome
    Marcin

    • Stuart Cook - March 13, 2015, 12:10 pm Reply

      Hi, Marcin
      To express past hypothesis, we use the third conditional. We’d say:
      ‘If I had fought in WWII’ and ‘If I had fought in the uprising’. (Note the past perfect structure in there – ‘I had fought’, as opposed to ‘I fought’, which we use in the second conditional.)

  17. shakun vashisht - April 13, 2015, 9:25 am Reply

    Hi,just want to know if Many &More can be used together in a sentence?like many more problems….

    • Stuart Cook - April 13, 2015, 11:25 am Reply

      Yes, you can say ‘more and more’. It suggest that the number or amount is increasing.

  18. Matthew Helm - January 4, 2016, 5:16 am Reply

    “If people eat too much, they will get fat.”

    Native English speaker here, what is wrong with the above sentence? It sounds correct to my ear.

    • Stuart Cook - February 2, 2016, 11:16 am Reply

      Hi, Matthew
      There’s nothing wrong with that sentence. In the examples I gave, I was just pointing out that will is not used in the zero conditional. Your example uses the first conditional to express what is essentially the same thing.

  19. Kristine - February 25, 2016, 9:59 pm Reply

    Thanks for this helpful site and for the answers to the questions. You may know the song “If Ever I Would Leave You” from the 1960 hit musical “Camelot.” The lyrics say things like, “If ever I would leave you, it wouldn’t be in summer.” Strictly speaking, it should be “If I ever left you, it wouldn’t be in summer,” right? But that wouldn’t fit the meter and rhythm of the song. Do you think it’s really so wrong to say, “If ever I would leave you, it wouldn’t be in summer”? Or “But if I’d ever leave you,
    It couldn’t be in autumn”? Thanks for any help you can give.

    • Stuart Cook - February 29, 2016, 4:56 pm Reply

      It goes against the modern accepted rules, but I think not so long ago it was common to use would (or even should) in the if-clause of conditional sentences. There are many ungrammatical constructions in the vernacular of folk, blues and jazz – things like double negatives, for instance (I ain’t got no home), and in the context of music the style sounds fine (and often ‘cooler’ than grammatical English).

  20. Memo - March 30, 2016, 11:32 am Reply

    Hello, how do I explain to ESL learners ‘if i hadn’t got the job, i’d have gone to live with my brother.’ I know its a 3rd conditional sentence, how do I convey the meaning as well as what anticipated problems will I have in meaning as well as providing solutions in grammar and meaning….

  21. Sheena - June 14, 2016, 4:05 am Reply

    Please could you clarify a point for me – the text is about writing a letter to your younger self, so an impossible situation is implied but I’m not sure If this this an example of second or third conditional, ‘I’d tell myself to have more confidence.’ I think it’s second, but because it’s an impossible situation I am not sure if this is correct.
    Thank you!

  22. Vladimír Hoffman - July 18, 2016, 9:23 pm Reply

    Hi Stuart,
    Great site and clear explanation. However, I need something extra if you were so kind. I am preparing some school papers about conditionals and I found VERY frequent structure
    “If + past simple + WILL + infinitive”.
    For instance “If you studied English at the high school, you will find this course easy”

    Another issue is structure “If + present simple + WOULD”. Like in “I would be surprised/satisfied/delighted if he is sentenced” OR “If exposure does cause disease, would you expect that… ?”

    And the last one is sentence:
    “If you didn’t like the shirt, you should not have bought it” which seems to be the first conditional backshifted (“If you do not like the shirt, you should not buy it”.), but I do not know if it is grammatical.

    I am not able to find any of these structures in my grammar books, they do not fit (maybe expect for the last one) into grammar structures you have described about, but they are really widespread, even in the native sites.

    Thank you in advance for any help.

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