How to master conditional sentences

Conditional sentences are part of most English books and courses. There are different types with different names and different rules. The name can sound scary, but there are just a few tips and tricks to use to become a conditional sentences expert. Below, I’ve broken these types of sentences down into categories to make it easier to decide which to use.

Things that are always true

When something is always true, we use the present simple in both halves of the sentence. For example:

  • If I’m tired, I go to bed early.
  • If it’s cold outside, I wear a coat.
  • If he’s bored, he plays on his phone.
  • If we get lost, we ask for directions.

In these sentences, we could also use when instead of if and the meaning is the same. Here are more tips on using if and when.

We can also swap all of these sentences round and the meaning stays the same. For example:

  • I go to bed early if I’m tired.

Things that are possible and likely

When something could really happen in the future, we use the present simple in the if half of the sentence and will (or might or may) in the other half. For example:

  • If it rains tomorrow, I’ll stay at home.
  • If I miss the bus, I’ll walk.
  • I’ll give her the book if I see her.
  • They’ll reserve a table if they see a good restaurant.

We can’t use when in these sentences. In most cases, we can’t use if and will in the same half of the sentence. If and will don’t like each other!

Things that are unreal or unlikely

If something is not realistic or not likely to happen, we use the past simple in the if half of the sentence and would or could in the other half. Here are some examples:

  • If I had a car like that, my friends would be jealous!
  • We would be very angry if they lost the key.
  • If I won the lottery, I would buy a boat.
  • I would change the world if I were President.

Again, it’s not possible to use when in these sentences. We should keep if and would in separate sentence halves.

Were or was?

Very often when we talk about unreal or unlikely sentences, we use were instead of was, e.g.:

  • If I were rich, I would buy this house.
  • If I were you, I would forget about it.
  • We would give him the job if he were qualified.
  • I would go out if the weather were better.

When we speak, we sometimes also use was in these sentences.

How do I know what’s possible or likely?

Sometimes it’s not clear if I’m talking about something realistic or unrealistic. In the sentence I would change the world if I were President, it’s clear that this is an unlikely sentence – for most of us! The only option is to use the past simple and would to show that I don’t think this will happen.

But what about this sentence: If it rains tomorrow, I’ll stay at home? In this example, the speaker thinks it’s possible that it could rain tomorrow. But if they thought this was impossible (maybe they’ve checked the weather forecast), they could say: If it rained tomorrow, I would stay at home.

Things in the past

If we’re talking about an unreal situation past, something that didn’t happen and we’re speculating about the possible consequences, we use the past perfect in the if part of the sentence and would/could have + past participle (third form) in the other half.

  • If you hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t have known.
  • If they hadn’t been late, we would have finished on time.
  • I would have gone on holiday if my flight hadn’t been cancelled.
  • He would have bought the phone if it hadn’t been so expensive.

Here again we can only use if and not when. None of the actions in these sentences can be changed because everything is in the past.

Things in the past affecting now

It’s also possible to combine different types of if sentences to show the effect of the past on now, e.g.:

  • If I had studied more, I would be better prepared.
  • If you had gone to bed earlier, you wouldn’t be so tired now.
  • They’d be fitter if they had done sport more often.
  • He could go home early if he’d worked harder yesterday.

In the if half of the sentence we use the past perfect; in the other half we use would or could and the base form of the main verb.


Do you have more tips for using these sentences? Or do you have any questions about this topic? I’d love to read them!

In, at or on to describe places

Last week I wrote about using in, at or on to describe times. This week, I’ve got some advice on how to use these words to talk about places. Is it in the cinema or at the cinema? In Paris or at Paris? In the train or on the train? Read on for answers to these questions and more.

In

We use in to talk about:

  • closed spaces
    • The laptop is in my office.
    • The car is in the garage.
    • They are in the kitchen.
  • cities, regions, countries
    • They live in Norway.
    • The concert is in Glasgow.
    • She works in the Midlands.

At

We say at when we describe:

  • specific points and locations
    • Let’s meet at the front door.
    • I’m at the station.
    • He’s at the cinema.
  • addresses
    • I live at 14 Long Lane.
    • The company is at 17 Regent Street.
    • Is the restaurant at 8 Market Square?

On

On is used to talk about:

  • floors in buildings
    • I live on the second floor.
    • Our hotel room was on the ground floor.
    • The office is on the top floor.
  • a surface
    • The picture is on the wall.
    • The book is on the table.
    • My bag is on the floor.
  • roads
    • The office is on Station Road.
    • The school is on the ring road.
    • There is a traffic jam on the A47.
  • other ‘long’ places
    • There is a bench on the path.
    • We sat on the riverbank.
    • We walked on the beach.

Exceptions and extra trips

  • on the train or in the train?
    • Both! British English speakers say on the train and American English speakers say in the train, so both are possible.
      • I was on the train when you called me.
      • I was in the train when you called me.
  • in the cinema or at the weekend?
    • If we talk about generally being at a location, we use at.
      • My son’s at the cinema.
      • I’m at the office.
      • We’re at the hotel.
    • If we want to stress that we are inside that place, we can use in.
      • My son’s in the cinema, but I’m waiting outside.
      • I’m in the office; I’m not in the car park.
      • We’re in the hotel, so the rain isn’t a problem.

Do you have any other questions about using in, at and on? Or do you have some more tips? Leave them in the comments below!

In, at or on to describe times

Is it on Tuesday or at Tuesday? In winter or on winter? At the weekend or on the weekend? These little words like in, at or on can be difficult to remember because often they are different in every language. Here are some tips to remember how to use them to talk about times.

In

We use in to talk about:

  • months
    • My birthday is in October.
    • We’re going on holiday in July.
    • She started her new job in February.
  • years
    • They started the company in 2011.
    • The next elections will be in 2023.
    • The protests took place in the year 1968.
  • seasons
    • We always go on holiday in summer.
    • It sometimes snows in the winter.
    • The days get longer in spring.
  • times of day
    • He always drinks coffee in the mornings.
    • In the afternoon I’m meeting a friend.
    • The restaurant was very full in the evening.

At

We say at when we describe:

  • specific times
    • The show starts at 6pm.
    • My train leaves at midday.
    • They’re meeting at half past four.
  • festivals
    • We visit our family at Christmas.
    • They will be away at Diwali.
    • What food do you eat at Easter?

On

On is used to talk about:

  • days of the week
    • Our next appointment is on Tuesday.
    • Do you have time on Thursday?
    • I didn’t go the party on Saturday.
  • dates
    • The conference is on 12th March.
    • My flight is on 20th November.
    • On 5th September we’re visiting customers.
  • special days
    • I’m having a big party on my birthday.
    • We always eat a roast dinner on Christmas Day.
    • Are seeing friends on New Year’s Eve?

Exceptions and extra trips

  • at night or in the night?
    • We say at night to talk generally about things that happen during the night.
      • The stars come out at night.
      • At night my cat is very active.
    • We say in the night to talk about one particular night.
      • I heard a strange sound in the night.
      • We’re flying home in the night.
  • at the weekend or on the weekend?
    • Both! British English speakers say at the weekend and American English speakers say on the weekend, so either is possible.
      • The weather was great on the weekend.
      • The weather was great at the weekend.
  • On Sunday morning or at Sunday morning?
    • Here, we say on Sunday morning because the day comes first.
      • I always go running on Tuesday afternoons.
      • We often go out on Friday evenings.
      • He already has plans on Wednesday morning.
  • At Christmas or on Christmas?
    • We say at Christmas to describe the whole festive period.
      • Our company has a party at Christmas.
      • I like to give my friends gifts at Christmas.
      • At Christmas the shops are always busy.
    • On Christmas Day describes that one day.
      • I visited my grandparents on Christmas Day.
      • Lots of people watch films on TV on Christmas Day.
      • Children get up early on Christmas Day.

Do you have any other questions about using in, at and on? Or do you have some more tips? I’d love to hear them in the comments below!

If or when?

When I see my friend or if I see my friend? When I visited my brother or if I visited my brother? Is there always a difference between if and when, and if so, how do I know which to use? This is one of the most common question my students ask. In many languages, there is just one word for both, so it can be confusing. Here are some tips to help you remember when to use if or when.

Is it always true?

If you are describing something that is always true, you can use if or when and the meaning is the same. Both parts of the sentence should use the present simple. For example:

  • When I’m tired, I go to bed. / If I’m tired, I go to bed.
  • When they win, they’re happy. / If they win, they’re happy.
  • When the price increases, we sell less. / If the price increases, we sell less.

Is it certain?

If something is definitely going to happen in the future, we use when. In these sentences, we’re sure that these things will happen and we’re describing what will happen in that situation.For example,

  • When I see my friend, I’ll give her the information.
  • When I give the presentation, I’ll speak loudly.
  • When he goes to France, he’ll visit the Eiffel Tower.

If I’m not sure something will happen, we use if. All of these sentences talk about things that may or may not happen. For example:

  • If I see my friend, I’ll ask her about her new job. (Maybe I will see her; maybe I won’t.)
  • If I give the presentation, I’ll prepare well. (I don’t know if I will give the presentation yet.)
  • If he goes to France, he’ll visit Nice. (He hasn’t decided yet if he’s going to France.)

If we swap if and will, the meaning changes:

  • If I see my manager, I’ll ask her. (I don’t know if I’ll see her.)
  • When I see my manager, I’ll ask her. (I know I’ll see her.)

Is it the past or just an idea?

If we are talking about something that really happened in the past, we use when.

  • When I was at school, I liked art classes.
  • When I lived in Scotland, we often went to the beach.
  • When I visited my friend, we went to a great restaurant.

However, if we’re talking about unreal actions (in the past, present or future), we need if. These sentences describes ideas that didn’t or probably won’t happen. Here are some examples:

  • If I won the lottery, I would buy a house.
  • If I took a plane, I would get there quicker.
  • If I had read the email, I wouldn’t have made the mistake.
  • If I hadn’t been late, my boss would be angry.

Summary

So, to summarise, we use when to talk about something real in the past or certain in the future. We use if to talk about about things that are not certain or not real. We can use either if or when to talk about things that are always true.


Do you have any more tips to help you remember when to use if or when? Do you have other questions about if sentences? Leave them in the comments below!

Present perfect or past simple?

I have gone or I went? I saw or I have seen? How do I talk about experiences in the past? And how do I use for to describe past events? The English language is famous for its different tenses, and it can be difficult to know when to use which. Here are some questions we can ask to decide if we should use the present perfect or the past simple.

Form

As a quick reminder, this is how we form the past simple:

  • I visited my friend. (Regular verbs add -ed; irregular verbs have different forms, e.g. went.)
  • I didn’t visit my brother.
  • Did you visit your friend?

To ask questions and form negative sentences, we need the helping verb did or didn’t. In these sentences we use the base form of the main verb; we don’t need both verbs in the past.

The present perfect looks like this:

  • I have visited Japan. (As with the past simple, regular verbs add -ed, irregular verbs have different forms, e.g. gone.)
  • I haven’t visited Thailand.
  • Have you visited Japan?

In every sentence in the present perfect, we always need the helping verb have or has. These are often shortened to ‘ve or ‘s, especially when we speak. We also need the past participle of the main verb (also known as the third form).

Is the action still happening now?

We use the present perfect to talk about things that are still happening now.

  • I lived in Rome in 2015. (not ongoing – I don’t live there now)
  • I have lived in Madrid since 2016. (ongoing – I still live there now)
  • He worked at the company last summer. (not ongoing – he doesn’t work there now)
  • He has worked at the company for one year. (ongoing – he still works there now)
  • We played tennis at that club for two years. (not ongoing – we don’t play now)
  • We have played tennis at this club for six months. (ongoing – we still play)

Is the time point important?

We often use the present perfect to talk about experiences and things that have happened at some point in our lives. Here, the time is not important. However, when we talk about a specific event or give a time point (e.g. yesterday, last week, in 2018), we use the past simple.

  • I have visited Japan. (at some point but the time is not important)
  • I visited Japan in 2013. (specific event)
  • Have you ever been to Canada? (at some point)
  • I went to Canada last summer. (specific event)
  • I have seen the new James Bond film. (at some point)
  • I saw it at the cinema with my friend. (specific event)

Can we see the results of the action now?

If that action is important for the present, we often use the present perfect. For example:

  • I lost my keys. (not relevant for now)
  • I have found my keys. (I have them now)
  • Last week I baked a cake. (not relevant for now)
  • I have baked some brownies. (they are here now)
  • I passed my driving test first time. (not relevant for now)
  • I have passed my exam. (this is news now)

Are there signal words?

There are some words that we often use with either the present perfect or past simple. These include:

  • Present perfect: since, already, yet, just, ever
  • Past simple: last week, yesterday, last week, in 2018, in February, on Tuesday

The preposition for is often used with both the present perfect and the past simple, as well as with other tenses. It is used to show how something lasts, for example:

  • I have studied French for two years. (ongoing – I still study French)
  • I studied French for two years. (not ongoing – I don’t study French now)

These are some of the main things to think about when we’re not sure if we should use the present perfect or past simple. Do you have any other tips to help you remember which tense to use?

Building negative sentences

So you’ve mastered the tenses, you know the difference between the present simple, perfect and continuous, but negative sentences are still difficult? When do we use an extra helping verb and when can just add not? Here is a brief guide to building negative sentences in English.

Present simple

When we form negative sentences in the present and past simple, we need a helping verb as well as the word not followed by the main verb. In the present, we use do or does:

I do not like chocolate. / I don’t like chocolate.

He does not like chocolate. / He doesn’t like chocolate.

do(es) + not + base form of main verb (no -s, -ing or to)

As we can see from these examples, we can shorten do not or does not to don’t or doesn’t. We do this a lot when we speak or write informally.

It’s not important what the main verb is, we nearly always need the helping verb to make a negative sentence. Sometimes we can have the verb do twice in once sentence, once as the helping verb and once as the main verb:

She does not do her homework. / She doesn’t do her homework.

This rule also applies to the verb have:

We do not have time. / We don’t have time.

Past simple

It’s the same with the past simple too, but this time we use did not or the short form didn’t:

I did not go to the meeting. / I didn’t go to the meeting.

We did not do the work. / We didn’t do the work.

He did not eat at home. / He didn’t eat at home.

did + not + base form of main verb (no -s, -ing, -ed or to)

The helping verb stays the same here; we don’t need to change it for he/she/it. Another important point to remember is that we don’t need to put the main verb in the past. The did is enough to show we’re talking about the past.

Exceptions

The only time we don’t need a helping verb with the simple tenses are with the verb be or modal verbs (e.g. can, must, should, might, may, will, shall, etc).

I am not at school. / I’m not at school.

He was not in Spain. / He wasn’t in Spain.

We must not open the door. / We mustn’t open the door.

They cannot pass the test. / They can’t pass the test.

She should not drive. / She shouldn’t drive.

Here, we simply add not after be or the modal verb.

Present continuous

Because we already have a helping verb in the sentence, we just add not between the helping verb and the main verb:

I am not going to the party. / I‘m not going to the party.

We are not giving the presentation. / We‘re not giving the presentation.

He is not learning Japanese. / He‘s not learning Japanese.

Other past tenses

Similarly in other past tenses, we already have a helping verb in the sentence (a form of either have or be). This means we just add not after the helping verb and we’re good to go.

We have not been to the cinema. / We haven’t been to the cinema.

I was not talking to my friend. / I wasn’t talking to my friend.

He had not visited Greece before. / He hadn’t visited Greece before.

Future tenses

When we use the helping verb will, we also just add not to the sentence:

I will not go the conference. / I won’t go the conference.

It will not rain tomorrow. / It won’t rain tomorrow.

Summary

The general rule is that if we already have a helping verb in a sentence, we just add not after the helping verb to make a sentence negative. If there is no helping verb (like in the present or past simple), we need to add one (e.g. do or did). There are, however, some exceptions, such as with the verb be or modal verbs.


Do you have other helpful tips for building negative sentences? Or do you have more questions? Feel free to post them in the comments below.