An Easy Way to Teach Conditionals

Updated January 2016

If I remember all the conditional patterns, I will pass the test!

Let’s talk about conditionals. I find that the usual textbook method of presenting one conditional pattern in isolation means that students will only remember and be able to use that one type. When another pattern is introduced weeks or months later, they often won’t remember the previous pattern well enough to keep them both straight, and confusion is the result.

I started laying out all four patterns at once in my TOEIC classes, where students needed to be able to distinguish between all types of conditional sentences in the grammar section of the test. After a lot of positive feedback from students, I started using this method in all my classes whenever one conditional pattern came up in the textbook (or just came up in conversation).

I really found that all my students, even the low-intermediate ones, understood conditionals so much better when all four patterns were clearly laid out for them. The following chart is how I prefer to present conditionals in my classes. Write out this chart on the board, or download and print it out. You’ll also find some useful tips below the chart.


Print out this handy chart for your students.


  • Example: If he takes vitamins every day, he doesn’t get sick. / He doesn’t get sick if he takes vitamins every day.
  • Also called the zero conditional.
  • Use this conditional to show an outcome that happens if a specific repeated condition is met.
  • The verbs in the if clause and in the main clause will both be simple present verbs (remind students that third person singular verbs end in -s).
  • Make sure that students realize, for all the conditional patterns, that the if clause and the main clause order doesn’t matter—the meaning is the same. I like to write out both versions of my example, as I’ve done above, so that this point hits home. Also note that a comma is needed when the if clause comes before the main clause.


  • Example: If she studies for the test, she will get a good grade. / She will get a good grade if she studies for the test.
  • Also called the first conditional or the real conditional.
  • Use this conditional to show a likely or possible outcome that will probably happen if a specific condition is met.
  • The verb in the if clause is a simple present verb, and the verb in the main clause is will + base form of the verb.
  • Make sure to point out that the verb in the if clause will end in -s if the subject is third person singular.


  • Example (of an unlikely situation): If he won the lottery, he would quit his job. / He would quit his job if he won the lottery.
  • Example (of an impossible situation): If I had wings, I would fly to Antarctica. / I would fly to Antarctica if I had wings.
  • Also called the second conditional or the unreal conditional.
  • Use this conditional to show an unlikely or impossible outcome that probably wouldn’t happen (unless a specific condition were met).
  • The verb in the if clause is a simple past verb, and the verb in the main clause is would + base form of the verb.
  • Make sure to point out that this is one case where it’s correct to use a past tense verb for a future situation.
  • Note: The verb to be is always were with this conditional, even in the first and third person singular. I usually give an example to ensure that students understand this strange exception: If I were rich, I would buy you a car. / I would buy you a car if I were rich.

4. IF + HAD + P.P., WOULD + HAVE + P.P.

  • Example: If I had remembered to call my friend last night, she wouldn’t have sent me an angry text message. / My friend wouldn’t have sent me an angry text message if I had remembered to call her last night.
  • Also called the third conditional.
  • Use this conditional to show a past regret or different outcome that would have happened if a specific condition had been met.
  • The verb in the if clause is a past perfect verb (had + past participle form of the verb), and the verb in the main clause is a past modal pattern (would + have + past participle form of the verb).
  • Make sure to tell students that this conditional isn’t very common. We don’t often speculate about what might have happened in the past, because we already know what actually happened.

As a review the next day, write this chart on the board to reiterate the four conditional patterns:

1. Present: If + Present, Present
2. Future (Likely/Possible/Real): If + Present, Will + Verb
3. Future (Unlikely/Impossible/Unreal): If + Past, Would + Verb
4. Past: If + Had + P.P., Would + Have + P.P.

For more practice, check out ESL-Library’s lesson plans and flashcards on conditionals!

If you try this method in your class, I will be very happy!


Leave a Comment ↓

  1. sehrish says:

    Sep 03, 2018 at 1:18 pm

    ah , finally understood , its really a great method , thanks


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Sep 03, 2018 at 2:19 pm

      I’m glad it helped you, Sehrish!


      • Mary says:

        Nov 20, 2018 at 6:20 am

        Really helpful. Thank you Tanya .


  2. Rebecca says:

    Jul 17, 2018 at 8:57 pm

    Thanks again for this advice. We love your work!


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Jul 18, 2018 at 5:13 pm

      Thanks for your kind comment, Rebecca!


  3. Baibhab Das says:

    Feb 19, 2018 at 12:56 am

    Amazing research and so meticulously explained! Bravo!


  4. Razi says:

    Dec 29, 2017 at 6:00 pm

    Thanks an ocean .It was awesome.It helped me a lot to teach conditionals better than before.🌹🌹


  5. Bouba Diarra says:

    Dec 02, 2017 at 6:04 pm

    Thank you for your generosity.
    How can we make it clear for our students that in the case of the second conditional there is a slim chance for the out come to happen when the verb in the if clause is the past f


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Dec 04, 2017 at 4:20 pm

      Hi Bouba, I make sure to use the words “likely” and “possible” for the first conditional and “unlikely” and “impossible” for the second conditional as I mentioned in the chart above. Make sure you also read out the examples! Usually, when students see “if I won a million dollars” or “if I had wings” they understand that these situations are unlikely to happen or impossible.


  6. Mals says:

    Nov 18, 2017 at 3:22 am

    Hi please help
    Which conditional does this sentence fell under.
    If I had won a million dollars, I would have bought a mansion.


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Nov 20, 2017 at 2:54 pm

      Hi Mals, that’s an example of the third conditional (if + had + p.p., would + have + p.p.).


  7. Julio Sánchez says:

    Nov 03, 2017 at 5:12 pm

    From a beginner teacher, thanks a lot, it was quite useful


  8. Nurul Ulfa says:

    Oct 15, 2017 at 9:14 am

    thank you for sharing


  9. Erasmo says:

    Aug 10, 2017 at 11:13 pm

    Thank you for your generosity Tanya, I see you take the time to answer all the comments. Thank you. All the best.


  10. Hossein Ghanizadeh says:

    Jun 30, 2017 at 1:07 pm

    Does the phrase ‘even if ‘ indicate conditional sentence type two?Thank you for answering.


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Jun 30, 2017 at 2:35 pm

      Hi again, yes, it does, but be careful. The meaning is a bit different with “even if.” It’s a stronger meaning, so we usually use it with a negative main clause. E.g., “Even if she passes the final exam, she won’t be able to graduate.” or “Even if she passes the final exam, she will still fail the class.”


      • Hossein Ghanizadeh says:

        Jul 07, 2017 at 12:32 pm

        Thank you for answering.You say it does,but the two examples are future tense.Is there any specific reason you did not use conditional type two in your examples?


        • Tanya Trusler says:

          Jul 07, 2017 at 1:43 pm

          Oh, I see. When you said “type two,” I thought you meant the second thing in the chart (1. zero conditional, 2. first conditional) so I gave you an example in the first conditional.

          To answer your quesiton, you can also use “even if” with the second conditional, but the meaning is stronger and we usually use it with a negative main clause, as with the first conditional. E.g., “Even if he won the lottery, he wouldn’t be able to pay off all his debts.”


          • Hossein Ghanizadeh says:

            Jul 10, 2017 at 10:56 am

            Thank you for answering.

  11. Hossein Ghanizadeh says:

    Jun 20, 2017 at 8:36 am

    When do we use ‘should’ inversion in a conditional sentence?Thanks for answering my previous question and this one.


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Jun 20, 2017 at 12:59 pm

      Hi again, great question. First, I like to remind my students that should-inversion is quite formal, so they won’t come across it very often. That said, they do need to know what’s going on when they see/use it.

      The pattern is: should + subject + base verb (+ object)

      This pattern takes a base verb, which follows the normal modal pattern of should + base verb rather than a conditional pattern of modal + have + p.p.

      Give students examples using the Be verb and the third person singular so that they understand it’s a base verb being used here.

      – Should you be at home later, please remember to call the office.
      – Should she need anything, tell her not to hesitate to ask.

      Also note that the meaning of should when in this case is “if” (not the usual meaning of “advice”). The only time “should” can start a sentence and mean “advice” is in a question.

      – Should you require anything else, just ring the bell. (if)
      – You should study tonight. (advice)
      – Should I study tonight? (advice)

      Hope that helps!


      • hosseinghanizadeh says:

        Jun 21, 2017 at 8:13 am

        Thank you very much for answering.It was very helpful.


  12. Hossein Ghanizadeh says:

    Jun 11, 2017 at 8:35 am

    Would you please suggest a conversation technique for using Type Two conditional in a conversation class?


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Jun 12, 2017 at 12:39 pm

      Sure! You could write a bunch of topics on the board, such as travel, job, place to live, health, lots of money, three wishes, etc., and get students to ask each other questions using the second conditional. (E.g., If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?)

      You can see this activity in chart form on page 5 of our Second Conditional grammar lesson:


      • Hossein Ghanizadeh says:

        Jun 20, 2017 at 8:31 am

        Thank you,Tanya.


  13. Katty says:

    Apr 24, 2017 at 6:29 pm

    I need toshow this topic to my Ss, but I can´t match a warm up to this activity, could yo help me? Pleaseeeee.


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Apr 25, 2017 at 2:40 pm

      Hi Katty,

      A popular warm-up for the second conditional is to play the song “If I Had a Million Dollars” by the Barenaked Ladies in class. You could print it out and make a gap-fill for listening practice, and then discuss the song’s meaning to elicit the meaning of the second conditional. You could also have students underline or count all the instances of the second conditional in the song. Good luck!


  14. Michelle Cutajar says:

    Mar 19, 2017 at 2:22 am

    I have just browsed through the conditionals lessons but I am not sure you say anything about the conditional – ‘If I were you, I would not do that’ – where ‘were’ is used instead of was. Thanks.


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Mar 20, 2017 at 12:43 am

      Hi Michelle,

      The “were” form is addressed in paragraph 3. (If + past, would + verb) in the last bullet point. I’ll copy it here for easy reference:

      Note: The verb “to be” is always “were” with this conditional, even in the first and third person singular. I usually give an example to ensure that students understand this strange exception: If I were rich, I would buy you a car. / I would buy you a car if I were rich.


      • Sheila says:

        Apr 11, 2017 at 9:16 pm

        In the textbook I’m using to teach a class (The New English File- Intermediate, 3rd edition) it very clearly states that in this conditional “was” can be used instead of were for singular subjects- I/you/she/he/it. The exception is when using this conditional for advice: “If I were you, I’d study more.” In tho case “were” must always be used.


        • Tanya Trusler says:

          Apr 12, 2017 at 2:19 pm

          Good point, Sheila. People do use “was” instead of “were” in the second conditional more and more often. When most grammar texts and style guides accept “was,” we will update our materials. For now, though, I’ll leave it up to the teachers to point out that some speakers use “was” if they want to do so. My concerns are that it might be confusing for students and that many people still regard “was” in this position as incorrect grammar. Maybe it would be good to tell students that it’s okay to use “was” in informal speaking and writing but stick to “were” in formal writing. And yes, I agree that “If I was you” sounds wrong so should never be used.


        • Frank says:

          Jan 22, 2019 at 8:59 pm

          I have come to find out that ‘was’ can be chiefly used when the object or person we are speaking about in the ‘if’ clause no longer exists.

          Ex: If John Adams was alive today, he might say that Independence Day is celebrated two days late.


          • Tanya Trusler says:

            Jan 23, 2019 at 5:27 pm

            Oh, that’s interesting! I’ll have to look into it. Thanks for sharing, Frank.

  15. Marie says:

    Feb 17, 2017 at 9:51 am

    Hello there,

    I have probably a silly question but it makes me confused most of the time.
    for the first and second consitions you say it is “Future”, of course in the two different situations.
    But imagine it is 10 am and you are going to meet your friend in the evening. before meeting, you will go to visit your GP. when your freind realised that you want to see the doctor, she writes you” probably you cannot make it today” i.e meeting her. Butyou are pretty sure that you will be free in the evening and 80% you can see your friend. however for that 20% , you want to ask about your friend’s plan for the day after. which type of conditionals is correct:
    if I could not make it, would you be free tomorrow night
    Or if I cannot make it, will you be free tomorrow night.

    for me it is confusing beacuse it is just 20% and you want to show you are most likely able to make it tonight.

    I do appreciate if you would clarify this and explain more about the concept of “future” in the two types of conditionals.

    Many thanks indeed


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Feb 17, 2017 at 2:40 pm

      Hi Marie,

      No questions are silly! If you’re wondering about something, then it’s likely other people are wondering about it too, so I’m glad you asked. :)

      In your example, you are 80% sure that you’ll be able to see your friend tonight. In that case, you want to use the first (likely) conditional because it’s likely you’ll meet your friend. (Remember that it doesn’t matter how sure your friend is. It only matters how likely YOU think it is.)

      – If I can’t make it tonight, will you be available tomorrow night?

      If you agreed with your friend that the doctor’s appointment might take too long, so you’re only 20% sure that you can make it, you should use the second (unlikely) conditional.

      – If I couldn’t make it tonight, would you be free tomorrow night instead?

      The tricky problem here is that native speakers would probably use the zero conditional or a combination for this case. No matter how sure you are, if you’re asking someone about alternate plans, you want to know, at the moment (in the present), if they know they are free tomorrow. I know this is confusing, but be aware that you’ll probably hear native speakers ask the questions rather than using the first or second conditional:

      – If I can’t make it tonight, are you free tomorrow night? (= best, most natural choice)
      – If I can’t make it tonight, would you be available tomorrow night? (= also correct)

      You were right to question the “future” meaning in this example. Usually we think of it as the present (do you know NOW what your plans for tomorrow night are?). Hope that helps! :)


  16. Fateme says:

    Jan 21, 2017 at 2:40 pm

    Thanks for the explanations,
    Though I have a question: Can’t I say: “If he takes vitamins, he won’t get sick” ?


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Jan 23, 2017 at 1:41 pm

      Hi Fateme,

      Yes, you can definitely say “If he takes vitamins, he won’t get sick.” Using the first conditional shows a likely or possible future outcome, so it works well in this sentence.

      Often you can choose between the zero and first conditional. It depends on what your focus is. If it you want to focus on a repeated action or true fact, you can use the zero conditional. If you want to focus on the future, use the first conditional.

      Keep in mind that the first conditional is a lot more common than the zero conditional, so when in doubt, use “if + present, will + verb.”


  17. bujar says:

    Oct 17, 2016 at 2:19 pm

    why can’t I search for these lessons


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Oct 17, 2016 at 2:48 pm

      Hi Bujar,

      You can easily search for lessons on our site. Click “Lessons” in the top left toolbar (next to the ESL Library logo). Then click the magnifying glass (search) icon on the top right. Then enter a search term, such as “conditional”. All the related lessons will appear. Let me know if you need any more help. :)


  18. Niloofar says:

    Sep 21, 2016 at 5:47 am

    Thank you… It was absolutely useful …..❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️


  19. Ali says:

    Aug 27, 2016 at 1:18 pm

    Tanya I am so grateful to you for this great explanations. Very simple the best way of teaching. If I were there I would thank you with big bouquet of flowers.


  20. Homa says:

    Jul 17, 2016 at 6:04 am

    You are a great teacher. I have been teaching English for 27 years. I confess that you did a good job.Thanks Tanya.I will surely use your explanation in my class.God bless you.


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Jul 18, 2016 at 1:18 am

      Thank you so much for your kind words, Homa! :)


  21. Dean says:

    May 11, 2016 at 2:10 am

    Dear Tanya, This is so confusing for me:
    “Use this conditional to show an unlikely or impossible outcome that probably wouldn’t happen (unless a specific condition were met”

    It is full of double negative words, “impossible..thay probaly would noy …unless…
    Im tyring to work out logic here, ooof confused.Help.


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      May 12, 2016 at 5:43 pm

      Hi Dean,

      I used this wording so that the 1st conditional (likely, possible, probably will happen) is contrasted with the 2nd conditional (unlikely, impossible, probably won’t happen). Examples:
      – If I study hard, I will pass my exams. (1st conditional: This situation is likely to happen because it’s common and logical.)
      – If I won the lottery, I would buy a mansion. (2nd conditional: This situation is unlikely to happen because it’s rare/not common. But, if the specific condition were met, as in I happened to pick the correct numbers, I could win the lottery. However, the chances of this are very slim.)
      – If I had wings, I would fly to Brazil. (2nd conditional: This situation is impossible because I don’t have wings.)

      Does that help? Let me know if you are still confused.


  22. Ram Kulkarni says:

    May 05, 2016 at 7:47 am


    Very nice explanation. I am very keen to learn Advance English. But however hard I try to grasp conditionals, I fail to remember them. In addition, after going through other websites I got more confused. They present future conditionals, mixed conditionals bla bla bla. I will be very thankful to you, if you could explain this conditionals mystery using some infographics or cartoons or pictures. I mean CONDITIONALS FOR DUMMIES!!! Thanks in advance.


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      May 05, 2016 at 12:27 pm

      Thanks, Ram! A picture-style explanation is a great idea. I’ll see if I can make it happen!


  23. B3hr4d says:

    Apr 27, 2016 at 6:46 am

    Another amazing work
    Easy to follow and Much easier to grasp.

    Many Thanks


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Apr 27, 2016 at 3:24 pm

      You’re welcome! Thanks for your comment.


  24. James McInnis says:

    Apr 26, 2016 at 10:19 am

    Thank you, Tanya. This is a terrific way to present conditionals. With all the irregularities of English, my students welcome this kind of clear explanation.

    I call the third the “Hindsight Conditional” which sums it up nicely and provides easy-to-remember vocabulary in the form of the old saying, “Hindsight is 20/20.”


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Apr 27, 2016 at 3:26 pm

      “Hindsight Conditional”—I love this! Thanks for sharing, James.


  25. Randall says:

    Apr 06, 2016 at 3:52 am

    The Zero Conditional can also be thought of as a “past reality”, that has occurred at least once (repeated), were as 1, 2, 3 Conditionals have never occurred.
    “If he takes vitamins, he doesn’t get sick.”
    How do you know?
    In the past he stopped taking vitamins and he got sick.
    Thanks for the good info and infographics.


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Apr 07, 2016 at 10:26 am

      Thanks for pointing out another use of the zero conditional, Randall!


  26. Quynh Chau says:

    Mar 21, 2016 at 1:48 am

    Thank you Tanya. It is much clearer to show all conditions in one table like this. :)


  27. Edward maarifa says:

    Mar 16, 2016 at 11:45 am

    Your Comment ithanks my teacher to asist me to know english please continue to asisit us God bless you


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Mar 16, 2016 at 12:17 pm

      You’re welcome, Edward! Thanks for your comment.


  28. Marie says:

    Feb 24, 2016 at 2:31 am

    Great resource – used it today with my class


  29. Jo-ann kennedy says:

    Feb 23, 2016 at 3:59 pm

    Excellent explanation! thanks


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Feb 23, 2016 at 4:37 pm

      You’re welcome, Jo-ann! Thanks for your comment.


  30. Winda Herdisa says:

    Feb 22, 2016 at 8:32 am

    Hello, thanks for uploading this lesson. Actually I’m a pre-service teacher, I mean I am a student but I’m teaching in the school. I’m teaching English for 11th grader (I’m from Indonesia) and this is very great. Thank you for helping.


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Feb 22, 2016 at 1:39 pm

      Thanks, Winda! Very glad you find it useful. Best of luck to you in your teaching journey.


  31. Francine Bryce says:

    Jan 20, 2016 at 2:33 pm

    Thanks for creating this resource and for sharing your observation about teaching conditionals. I agree with your assessment regarding textbooks: sometimes it’s best to present all the information for complicated topics, especially if you know your students can handle it.


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Jan 20, 2016 at 6:13 pm

      It was lovely to hear this, Francine. Thank you!


  32. ms.han says:

    Jan 15, 2016 at 2:57 pm

    I’ve searched and read many different webpages on conditionals and yours is the best for my students. Thanks for taking your time to make this! This is awesome!


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Jan 15, 2016 at 4:31 pm

      That’s so nice to hear. Thank you! :)


  33. karima says:

    Jan 07, 2016 at 9:20 am

    oh ! I still remember the bad luck !the day my inspector came to class, I had to teach third type conditional!!hhh! it is difficult to make students grasp meanings when they have to imagine unreal actions! I see you do not teach it deductively! not really encouraged by experts, though I do it !!


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Jan 08, 2016 at 2:11 pm

      Hi Karima,

      Wow, that’s a tough class to be evaluated for! I hope you did well though. And don’t forget that you can use this explanation after you have introduced the grammar in a more communicative way. In my case, I always find that my students do benefit from an explanation at some point. :)


  34. Jayati says:

    Jan 05, 2016 at 6:45 am

    This was an awesome explanation! I can finally understand conditionals! Thank you!! :)


  35. Nancy Gonzalez says:

    Jun 25, 2015 at 12:31 am

    Great! Thanks a bunch!


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Jun 25, 2015 at 4:48 pm

      You’re welcome, Nancy! Thanks for commenting. :)


  36. Youssef Eldeheby says:

    May 26, 2015 at 7:31 pm

    I got more confused as my teacher taught it to me in a different way! Anyways thanks :D


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      May 28, 2015 at 8:28 pm

      Hi Youssef,

      If you tell me which part is confusing you, I might be able to help. But I know that there are many ways to teach and learn something, and everyone learns differently. :)


  37. Salah says:

    Sep 25, 2014 at 7:39 am

    Hi Tanya,
    Thank you very very much Tanya for this easy, short and clear explanation of Conditionals.

    Thanks millions and wish you all the best.


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Sep 25, 2014 at 4:54 pm

      Happy to hear it, Salah! All the best to you too.


  38. maria flores says:

    Apr 04, 2014 at 11:43 pm

    thank you it was a great help


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Apr 05, 2014 at 12:30 am

      You’re welcome, Maria! Thanks for taking the time to comment!


      • Hari Yalni says:

        Jun 06, 2015 at 2:34 am

        I cant understand the “if i had known…i wish i had known..if u dont mind can u give a good explain for it with examples


        • Tanya Trusler says:

          Jun 09, 2015 at 6:01 pm

          Hi Hari,

          “If I had known” and “I wish I had known” are both used to express regrets in English. The first is the third conditional pattern: if + had + p.p., would + have + p.p.

          Here are some examples:
          – If I had known about the meeting, I wouldn’t have gotten in trouble for missing it.
          – If she had known that you called her last night, she would have called you back.

          The second one is the subjunctive. With “wish”, there are two past subjunctive patterns you can use to express regrets:
          1) wish / had + p.p.
          – I wish I had brought a gift to the party.
          – He wishes he had taken the time to thank her.
          2) wish / could + have + p.p.
          – I wish I could have been there.
          – They wish they could have seen the meteor shower last night.
          (Note: would + have + p.p. is also possible, but it is considered more informal.)

          Here is some more info about the subjunctive and “wish”

          Hope that helps!


  39. Amanda says:

    Aug 03, 2013 at 3:46 am

    Hi Tanya, great resource! I used it in my class this week (we were doing Business English – negotiations) and it worked really well. Any chance you could do similar resources for, say, all of English grammar? :)


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Aug 03, 2013 at 4:23 am

      Hi Amanda,

      I’m working on it! ;)

      I checked out your blog post—it was great to see how you used this method in your class! Fantastic blog, by the way! I’d love to share the URL with our readers. Can you let me know if that’s okay with you?



  40. Luis Henrique says:

    Jul 23, 2013 at 6:14 am

    hey tania, thanks for such job, I usedit in my class… really worked out!


  41. navdeep kaur says:

    Mar 15, 2013 at 6:10 am

    really it’s an excellent way to learn all the conditionals together.thanx tanya for such an awesome job.


    • Tanya says:

      Mar 15, 2013 at 2:22 pm

      Thanks, Navdeep!


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