It’s a Little “Iffy” – How to Make Conditional Statements

image by WTCC instructor ecparent

Have you ever heard someone say that something is “iffy”? It means that something is uncertain. We aren’t sure IF it will happen or not. It might happy IF everything goes right. It might not happen IF there is a problem.

  • Can we go to the park tomorrow?
    I don’t know. The weather looks a little iffy. (We don’t know what the weather will be like. It might rain, or it might be sunny. We aren’t sure.)
  • When are you going to move into your new house?
    Hmmmmm…it’s a little iffy. The construction has been slow because of all the snow, so we aren’t sure. They said it would be finished next month, but if this winter continues, it might take longer.

How do we use “if” in English? We use it in several ways, but it always shows a cause and an effect. This week, I will show you two kinds of conditional statements – zero conditional and first conditional. First, however, I will show you how a conditional statement is generally formed. There are two parts:

  1. the dependent “if” clause – if + subject + verb, etc.
  2. the independent “then” clause – (then) subject + verb, etc.

You can put the two clauses in either order (dependent + independent OR independent + dependent).

If you give me bad news, I will cry.
I will cry if you give me bad news.

I want you to notice two things:

  1. When the “if” clause is first, you put a comma at the end of it (before the “then” clause). When the independent “then” clause comes first, there is no comma.
  2. I didn’t use the word “then” at all in these sentences. It is optional in the first sentence, but not in the second sentence. You can use “then” when you put the independent clause at the end of the sentence (If you give me bad news, then I will cry.), but you cannot use “then” at the beginning of the sentence.

Now let’s look at two kinds of conditional statements.

Zero Conditional

We use zero conditional for real things that really happen. When we use it, we are talking about general truths – things that are always true. The situations in zero conditional statements are real and possible. The verb in each part of the sentence (independent and dependent clause) is in present tense.

If + subject + present-tense verb + , + subject + present-tense verb.
Subject + present-tense verb + if + subject + present-tense verb.

Here are some examples of zero conditional statements. Which part is the dependent clause, and which part is the independent clause of each one?

  • If you put your hand in water, it gets wet.
  • If you cut yourself, you bleed.
  • Ice melts if you heat it.

In a zero conditional statement, you can change “if” to “when,” and the meaning does not change.

Finish these zero conditional sentences:

  1. If you are _______________, you eat.
  2. If you are hot, you turn on the _________________.
  3. Your clothes get dirty if you ____________________________________ for a living.

First Conditional

“Messy Toddler” By Larali21 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

First conditional is similar to zero conditional, but we use it to talk about a specific, real, possible situation, not a general truth. In zero conditional, I say, “If you put your hand in water, it gets wet.” I am not talking about a specific person’s hand or water that is in the room. When I use first conditional, I am talking more specifically. In first conditional, I say, “If you put your hand in the water, it will get wet.” I say this kind of thing to my little girl all the time.

  • If you touch the hot stove, it will hurt.
  • If you throw the leaf off the balcony, it will fall down.
  • If you don’t want me to carry you, then you have to walk.
  • If you keep screaming, then we will not go to the park.
  • If you don’t eat your dinner, you will be hungry later.

Notice that the verbs in first conditional are a little different from the verbs in zero conditional. The dependent “if” clause still has a present-tense verb, but the independent “then” clause uses a future verb. This is because you are talking about a real, possible, present cause and a real, possible, future effect. “If you don’t pay your cell phone bill (now), Verizon will cut off your service (in the near future).”

If + subject + present-tense verb + , + subject + future-tense verb.
Subject + future-tense verb + if + subject + present-tense verb.

Finish these first conditional sentences:

  1. If you don’t exercise, you will ___________________________________.
  2. You will feel better tomorrow if you _____________________________________.
  3. If it is raining this afternoon, ___________________________________.

When you use “will” in first conditional statements, you are speaking with certainty, but if you aren’t sure about the effect (“then” clause), it is possible to change “will” to “might.”

  • If you don’t eat your dinner, you might be hungry later.
  • You might hurt yourself if you jump off the porch.
  • We might go to the park today if the weather is nice.

Classroom Activity

Here is a fun activity to do with your class. You can also play this game with your family and friends.

  1. Give each person two blank cards or small pieces of paper.
  2. On one card, write a dependent “if” clause. On the other card, write an independent “then” clause to go with the dependent clause. When you put the two cards together, you should have a complete sentence that makes sense.
  3. Collect all the cards, mix them up, and place them face down (so you can’t see the words) on the table.
  4. Take turns turning over two cards. If you turn over two cards that go together to make a complete sentence, you can keep them AND take another turn. If you turn over two cards that don’t go together, turn them face down again, and the next person takes a turn.
  5. When all the cards have been matched, see who has collected the most pairs. That person is the winner!

2 thoughts on “It’s a Little “Iffy” – How to Make Conditional Statements

  1. Hi,

    This was such an easy explanation given to use the ‘If’ clause unlike how we end up using it. I love the classroom activity and wonder if adults can also be taught with a similar activity. I am volunteering to teach adults in night school and stumbled upon your blog. Thanks for sharing.

    R. Shankar

    1. Hi Rahul,
      This blog is for adult ESL students, so all the activities and explanations are geared toward adults! Have fun, and good luck!

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