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IELTS grammar study guide conditionals

Published on June 29, 2019

Have you been following our blog series on IELTS grammar? If you’ve answered yes to this question, then you’re probably already familiar with a variety of complex grammatical structures that you can use on your IELTS. If you haven’t read our previous posts yet, don’t worry – you can find them here:

Today’s grammatical structure is conditionals, also known as if clauses.

Understanding conditionals

Conditionals are sentences that we use to talk about a possible or imaginary situation and its consequences (e.g. If I were rich, I would travel around the world). They contain an if clause (e.g . If I were rich) and a main clause (e.g . I would travel around the world), and they are often divided into four different types, depending on how probable the situation is:

Zero conditional

We use the zero conditional to talk about things that are always true:

  • If people eat too much and don’t exercise, they gain weight.
  • Wild animals attack when they feel threatened.
  • If you touch fire, you get burned.

There are a few things to note in the above sentences. First, when using the zero conditional, the present simple is used in both clauses. Second, you may have noticed that the words if and when were both used in the if clauses. This is because zero conditional sentences express general truths, so you may choose to use when instead of if. And third, the conditional clause can come before or after the main clause. This applies not just to zero conditionals but to all conditional sentences.

First conditional

We use the first conditional to talk about real and possible situations:

  • If I don’t get the score I need, I’ll have to take the test again.
  • If we don’t do anything about climate change now, future generations will suffer the consequences.
  • I might go to the beach if it’s nice tomorrow.

Notice that in the first conditional, the if clause uses the present simple tense, while the main clause uses will + infinitive without ‘to’. The modals can, may and might can also be used in the main clause, as seen in the last example. The use of the modal verb might in this case suggests that there is some doubt whether the speaker will actually go to the beach.

Second conditional

We use the second conditional to talk about unreal or imaginary situations:

  • If more people took public transport, we wouldn’t spend so much time sitting in traffic.
  • If I went to bed earlier, I would be less tired in the morning.
  • He could save a lot of money if he packed his own lunches.

In the second conditional, the if clause uses the past simple tense, and the main clause uses would, could, may or might + infinitive without ‘to’.

Third conditional

We use the third conditional to describe something that didn’t happen in the past. In other words, the speaker is talking about what might have happened in the past, but did not:

  • If I had known how difficult it is to find a job as a journalist, I would have studied something else.
  • She could have died if we hadn’t taken her to the hospital.
  • He may have been promoted if he hadn’t left the company.

Here, the if clause uses the past perfect tense. The main clause uses would, could, may or might + have + past participle.

It is also possible to use a combination of second and third conditionals, also known as mixed conditionals. We use mixed conditionals to refer to different times. For example, in the sentence ‘ I wouldn’t still be unemployed if I had accepted their job offer.’, the speaker describes the present result ( I wouldn’t still be unemployed) of a past situation ( if I had accepted their job offer).

Punctuation in conditional sentences

Even though conditionals are complex grammatical structures, punctuating them correctly is easy. Just remember these two very simple punctuation rules:

  • If the if clause comes before the main clause, use a comma.
  • No comma is necessary if the if clause comes after the main clause.

Conditionals in IELTS

Talking about possible or imaginary situations is very common in IELTS. For example, you may be asked to talk about an interesting job you would like to have or to describe a place you would like to visit. In Writing Task 2, you may have to develop a position based on an unreal situation or speculate on consequences or results in the future. In such cases, you will most likely need to use conditional sentences.