How to Use 1st and 2nd Conditional Grammar

I’m sure most of you know that it’s correct to say I was, she was, he was and it was, in the simple past. But did you know that it can also be correct to say I were, she were, he were, and it were?

There is! Today we’re going to learn how to do that by learning about the first conditional and the second conditional in English. These two conditionals will help you express yourself clearly and help you understand how speakers really feel.

Now, I have a really important question to ask you! Please go down to the comment section and write your answer. Ready? Here it is:

If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you be?

Okay, maybe it’s not super important, but it’s a fun way to practice the second conditional. And after you post your answer, read someone else’s answer and reply to them! At the end, we’ll also do a quiz so you can see how well you understand this conditional grammar.

Should I Use First or Second Conditional?

Many English learners confuse these two conditional tenses because they can be used interchangeably. The only real difference is the speaker’s opinion, and of course, a bit of logic!

What Are the First and Second Conditionals?

Here’s an example of the first conditional:

If I have time, I will call you.

This is a true statement, and I believe it could really happen. I will have time later, and I will call you.

Now, here’s the second conditional:

If I had time, I would call you.

In this case, I am expressing my desire to call you, but because I used the second conditional, that means that I don’t think I will have time, and I won’t call you.

A lot of times, we think of the first conditional as a “real” conditional and the second conditional as “unreal,” because the speaker believes that what they’re saying is unlikely, or even impossible.

A Real Life Example

Let me give you an example from my life about getting a dog. I love dogs. I don’t have a dog, but I want one. I live with my boyfriend, and when I met him two years ago, he told me that even though he likes dogs, he wouldn’t want me to have a dog in the house.

So, for the last two years, I’ve been working on this. I would say things like:

If I got a dog, I would get a French bulldog.
If we had a dog, you would love it.

My boyfriend is pretty stubborn, but out of the blue two weeks ago, he said that maybe we needed to get a dog! I was so happy! Now, instead of speaking about dogs in the second conditional, I can talk about getting a dog in the first conditional because it’s possible now! Now, I say:

If I get a dog, I will get a French bulldog.
If we have a dog in the house, you will be so happy!

The only real difference in deciding whether to use first or second conditional is the speaker’s opinion about the probability of the situation. The first conditional is possible and could really happen, but the second is either impossible or unlikely to happen.

How Do You Form The First Conditional?

With all conditionals, we have two clauses: an if-clause and a result clause. The difference between the structure of conditionals is the verb tense that we use.

In the first conditional, we use the present tense in the if clause, and the future tense (with will) in the result clause.

If + subject + verb, subject + will + verb

For example:

If it rains tomorrow (I think it’s probable–the weather forecast is calling for rain), I will take my umbrella.

If + it (subject) + rains (verb) tomorrow, I (subject) will take (future tense with will) my umbrella.

How Do You Form the Second Conditional?

Now, let’s look at the second conditional. In the if-clause, we use the simple past, and in the result clause, we use would and the base form of the verb.

If + subject + simple past tense verb, subject + would + verb

For example:

If it rained tomorrow (unlikely, because it rarely rains where I live), I’d take my umbrella.

If + it (subject) + rained (verb in simple past) tomorrow, I’d (subject + would) + take (verb in its base form) my umbrella.

Can These Forms Be Changed?

The simple answer is yes! I can switch the order of the clauses.

Instead of saying, “If it rains tomorrow, I’ll take my umbrella,” I can say, “I’ll take my umbrella if it rains tomorrow. There is no difference in the meaning, but you can see there is a difference in punctuation if you are writing. When you put the “if “clause first, you need a comma. There is no comma when the “if” clause is second.

More First Conditional Examples

Here are some more examples of the first conditional, which is used when the speaker believes the things are likely to happen.

1. If she cooks dinner tonight, her husband will wash the dishes.
2. If the baby misses his nap, he’ll be cranky this afternoon.
3. The teacher will return the quizzes tomorrow if she finishes grading them tonight.
4. If he exercises, he will lose weight!

In all of these sentences, the speaker believes that these things will probably happen.

More Second Conditional Examples

In the second conditional, the speaker believes that what they’re saying is probably not going to happen.

They would go to France if they had enough time off from work.
In this case, they don’t have enough time off work, so they probably won’t be going to France.

She would ask for help if she needed it.
In this situation, I don’t think she needs help. Therefore, she’s probably not going to ask for it.

Let’s try the same sentence in the first conditional:

If she needs help, she’ll ask for it.
Here, I believe that she might need help and that she will ask for it if she does.

Use the Second Conditional for Impossible Situations

We can also use the second conditional when we talk about imaginary situations or things that are completely impossible. Remember the question I asked you at the beginning?

If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you be?

This is not possible, is it? You’re not an animal, but imagine if you could be… For me, if I were an animal, I would be a duck. Ducks always look so calm and relaxed, and who doesn’t like a duck? What would you be?

Use the Second Conditional to Give Advice

This is something we do all the time! If your friend has a problem, you might say, “You should do this,” or “You need to do that.” Well, this could sound a little bossy or pushy. It’s more polite to use the second conditional, and say, “If I were you, I would…” You’re still giving advice, but “If I were you, I would find a new job,” sounds nicer than saying, “You need to find a new job.”

Time For a Quiz!

Let’s see how well you understand this! Say yes if you think the sentence is a first conditional, and it’s very likely to happen. Say no if it’s a second conditional and it’s unlikely to happen!

  1. If I had enough money, I’d buy a Ferrari.
  2. If I get home early, I’ll watch a movie.
  3. If you subscribe to this channel, you’ll learn a lot!
  4. If I won the lottery, I’d share with all of you!
  5. If my brother comes over tonight, we’ll cook dinner together.

1. No
2. Yes
3. Yes
4. No
5. Yes

Now, let’s check your understanding of the right verbs to use.

If he liked sushi, he_________to the new Japanese restaurant.

  1. goes
  2. will go
  3. would go
  4. go

The correct answer here is 3, would go. In the if-clause we have the past tense verb liked, so the result clause needs to use would with the base form of the verb.

I ___________ you later tonight if I hear anything new.

  1. will call
  2. would call
  3. call
  4. called

The correct answer is 1, will call. In the if clause, we use “hear,” the simple present. So, the result clause needs “will” and the verb.

I hope that you feel more confident using the first and second conditionals now. Learning a second language can feel overwhelming, but you can do it! Reading post like this is a great way to really improve your English fluency. However, make sure to use what you learn in speaking and in writing.

For more about conditionals, check out this post on the first conditional! Look for Go Natural English on YouTube, and keep learning and growing your English skills! See you next time!