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Conditional Forms of Verb: Guidelines for Using Them Correctly

Here are some sentences:

If I got the first class, I would go and join a Medicine program.
If I had worked hard, I could have got through in the examination.
If I work hard, I will definitely pass this time.

These examples show three different forms of conditional verbs. The first one is an improbable (unreal) condition, second, an impossible condition and the third, probable (real) condition.

Now, we will see where to use which.

Real (Probable Condition)

This condition has a result happening in the future, based any present event. This is called real condition because there is every probability for it to happen. The first part of the condition (the condition status/if part) is usually expressed in the present simple form, and the result part is expressed in future simple. Examples:

If Mark is home, I will pay him a visit.
Joe will be here any moment, if the traffic is smooth.
The systems will work just fine, if you follow my instructions.

In some situations, the real condition can have the result expressed in present tense itself. When the situation mentioned is a general assumption, habit, or truth, both sides of the condition will be in the same tense form.

If I ring the bell, the page is always there.
If it rains all day, I don't go out.
If it gets late, she usually catches a taxi to get home.
He always beat the dog, if it howled.
Tom always found it interesting, if Sarah told him stories.

Unreal (Improbable) Condition

This condition expresses hypothetical statements that have no chance of happening in the future. The result becomes improbable because the condition was not met in the past. The condition is expressed in the past simple form, and the result, with auxiliary verbs like would, should, could, might, etc.

If he prepared harder, the team would win the trophy.
If I found a love, I could get married sooner.
If they had stronger limbs, hippos wouldn't spend more time in water.

Impossible Condition

This is a form of condition with no possibility of existence. This form should be used if neither the condition nor the result ever happened in the past. The condition is expressed in the past perfect tense, and the result in forms like would/could/might + have + PPt form of verb.

If Tom Cruise had acted in the third part of Jurassic Park, it could have been a big hit.
If we had kept the female kitten, we could have had more kitten now.


The conditionals form a greatly important section of grammar. Still, a lot of people make mistakes in this. This post may help correct them. Post your comments.

Copyright © Lenin Nair 2008


  1. The past participle of "got" is "gotten"--"I could have gotten" not "I could have got."

    Aside from that, definitely valuable advice.

  2. Peter, thanks for the comment. But 'gotten' as Ppt for 'get' is correct only in American English. Since CW is a publication for World English, with a lot of viewers from the UK and India besides the US, I will stick with get-got-got/gotten.



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