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!

Five common mistakes when learning English

Learning a language is not always easy. There are new words to learn, grammar structures to master and different situations to practise using our new skills. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes when speaking a new language; it’s part of the learning process. I’ve collected five common mistakes when learning English and some tips on how to correct them.

1. If + will/would

If sentences can be confusing. There are lots of different types of if sentences and we can even mix them. However, one important rule is that will or would do not go in the same part of the sentence as if. They do not like each other! Here are some examples:

If I will see her, I will tell her.
If I see her, I will tell her.

If I would get the job, I would be very happy.

If I got the job, I would be very happy.

2. Double past tense

When we make negative sentences or questions in the past tense, we normally use the helping verb did or didn’t. This verb shows we are talking about the past. That means we don’t add -ed or use the past form of the main verb. For example:

I didn’t went to the show.
I didn’t go to the show.

Did you saw the email?
Did you see the email?

More tips on building negative sentences.

3. When to use present perfect

There are several rules that help us to decide if we need present perfect or simple past. Probably the most important one is that we cannot use present perfect with time words that show that something is finished, such as:

  • yesterday
  • last week
  • last month
  • on Tuesday
  • in October
  • in 2017
  • in the morning

Have you gone to the gym yesterday?
Did you go to the gym yesterday?

Has she called the client last week?
Did she call the client last week?

I’ve written on more tips on using the present perfect and past simple here.

4. Negative modal verbs

Modal verbs are special helping verbs. When we make a negative sentence with a modal verb (can, must, may, should, must, might, etc) we do not use don’t. Instead, we just add not after the modal verb.

I don’t can speak Spanish.
I can’t speak Spanish.

You don’t should wear your hat inside.
You shouldn’t wear your hat inside.

Must has special rules!

We don’t must finish the presentation today.
We don’t have to finish the presentation today.
(We can, but it’s not necessary.)

Note: We mustn’t smoke in the office.
(It is forbidden.)

5. Present simple or continuous?

This is a common mistake for both beginners and advanced learners. If an action is repeated, we use simple present. If an action is right now or for a short time around now, we use present continuous.

Every day I’m starting work at 8am.
Every day I start work at 8am.

At the moment I learn Russian.
At the moment I’m learning Russian.

More tips about present tenses can be found here.


Do you have any other tips to help with these topics? What do you find most difficult in English?

Top podcasts to learn English

Podcasts are an excellent way to practise listening skills. There are podcasts out there for every level and interest, and often they are short, so you can listen more than once to understand as much as possible. Many podcasts also come with an audio script or even interactive activities, so you can read along as you listen or test your understanding. Another great thing about podcasts is that you can listen to them while you’re doing something else, like travelling to work or cooking dinner. This means you can practise English without finding extra time in your day.

My top tip for working with podcasts would be not to worry about understanding every word. Even when we listen in our native language, we miss words or we don’t understand a phrase. It doesn’t matter because we understand enough information to know what the presenter is talking about. This is the same when we’re learning a new language: we don’t need to know every word. Instead, it’s better to try and understand the main ideas. If we listen again a second or third time, we can pick up more details.

There are plenty of podcasts specifically for learners on particular topics or grammar structures, but we can also use more general interest podcasts in English to help improve our skills. I have collected some of my favourite podcasts for English learners below.

British Council

  • Aimed at pre-intermediate +
  • These podcasts are like radio shows.
  • The LearnEnglish podcasts discuss different topics from every life and also follow the story of a student moving to the UK.
  • There are also podcasts aimed at professionals, as well as ones focusing on writing skills and British culture.
  • On the website there are online activities and transcripts (can also be downloaded as a PDF).
  • The LearnEnglish Podcasts app shows the script of the podcast and highlights the sentence so you can read along. It’s possible to make the audio slower. There are also interactive activities for each episode.
  • Average length: 5-30 minutes

BBC 6 Minute English

  • Aimed at pre-intermediate + (depending on grammar topic)
  • 6 Minute Grammar podcasts are short, understandable podcasts from the BBC are a great way to help you understand tricky grammar topics. Each episode includes a short, clear description, lots of examples and a short quiz at the end.
  • 6 Minute English is like a short radio show on general interest topics, such as politics, the economy and psychology. There are also notes on key vocabulary and a question to answer when listening.
  • 6 Minute Vocabulary focuses on different vocabulary topics, such as words for particular situations or words easily confused. It also gives tips on how to use the new words.
  • All the podcasts and transcripts are also available in the BBC Learning English app.
  • Average length: 6 minutes

BBC The English We Speak

  • Aimed at upper intermediate +
  • These are short podcasts on special expressions or idioms to help you sound more natural when speaking English.
  • The transcripts are available in the BBC Learning English app.
  • Average length: 2-3 minutes

TED

  • Aimed at native speakers, for upper intermediate and advanced students.
  • These talks are on a range of topics, including science, technology, the economy, society, the environment and personal development.
  • The talks are usually clearly spoken and well structured, making them easier to follow. They are also a good way to get used to different accents.
  • In the app, it’s possible to shows subtitles in a language of your choice (I recommend English) and to reduce the speed.
  • Average length: 15-20 mins (Radio hour 60 mins)

Luke’s English Podcast

  • Aimed at intermediate +
  • Relaxed talk shows on a variety of topics, including British culture,general interest and the presenter Luke’s life.
  • All the podcasts and transcripts are available in the app.
  • Most of the podcasts are free, but there is some premium content.
  • Average length: 1 hour

Which podcasts do you listen to? Share your favourites in the comments below.

Top tips for learning vocabulary

Whether you’re learning English with a teacher, a course book or through self-study, one of the hardest things is learning all the new words and phrases you need. Which words should you learn? How should you record them? How often should you practice? Here are my top tips for vocabulary-learning success.

Find a system

When learning a language we hear and read lots of new words and phrases. Before we can memorise the words, we need a way to record them. There are lots of systems people use to write down their vocabulary. There is no right or wrong system, but here are some examples:

  • a traditional vocabulary book:  a list of English words and either translations in their language (sometimes translations are not possible!) or descriptions
  • flashcards: the new word of phrase on one side of the card and a description, picture or translation on the other
  • mind maps: the topic in the middle of a page and related vocabulary sorted into categories, e.g. ‘restaurants’ and then the categories ‘verbs in a restaurant’, ‘phrases to order food’, ‘food types’, ‘objects in a restaurant’, ‘adjectives to describe restaurants’, etc.
  • spreadsheets: a list of English words and the translation or description in the next column.
  • apps: there are lots of apps available to help with vocabulary. Some let you add your own words; some already have set categories.
  • post-its: label objects around your house with post-it notes, or have a wall/door where you stick up words you are trying to learn. The words can be colour-coded according to word type or situation.

Start small

Take five new words you would like to learn, the most important words for your job or everyday life. Every day when you are eating breakfast, sitting on the bus or cooking dinner, make a sentence with each new word. Repeat this every day for a week or until you know the words very well. The next week you can try new words. If five words are too easy, try eight or ten words. It’s better to start small and then make it more difficult if needed.

This is a good method because we remember new words and phrases better when we actively use them. It also means that you don’t need to find extra time in your day to learn vocabulary. You can practise when you are doing something else. Follow the link to read more about practising English you don’t have much time.

Practice makes perfect

When we have worked hard to learn new words, we want to remember them for a long time. It’s good to regularly review vocabulary using the systems above, for example, by covering the English words and then testing how many you remember. Instead of just saying the word or writing it down, try to put it in a sentence. You can also try to make a story with groups of words. Learning vocabulary is an active process.


Do you have any more tips for learning vocabulary? I’d love to hear them in the comments below! Also, let me know if you try out any of these methods.