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First or Second Conditional?

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First or Second Conditional Based on the Situation

The first and second conditional in English refer to a present or future situation. Generally, the difference between the two forms depends on whether a person believes that a situation is possible or unlikely. Often, the condition or imagined situation is ridiculous or clearly impossible, and in this case the choice between first or second conditional is easy: We choose the second conditional.

Example:

Tom currently is a full time student.
If Tom had a full-time job, he'd probably work in computer graphics.

In this case, Tom is a full time student so it is obvious that he does NOT have a full-time job. He might have a part-time job, but his studies demand the he concentrates on learning. First or second conditional?

-> Second conditional because it is clearly impossible.

In other cases, we speak about a condition that clearly possible, and in this case choosing between the first or second conditional is easy again: We choose the first conditional.

Example:

Janice is coming to visit for a week in July.
If the weather is good, we'll go for a hike in the park.

Weather is very unpredictable, but it's quite possible that the weather will be good in July. First or second conditional?

-> First conditional because the situation is possible.

First or Second Conditional Based on Opinion

The choice between first or second conditional is often not so clear. Sometimes, we choose the first or second conditional based on our opinion of a situation. In other words, if we feel something or someone can do something, then we'll choose the first conditional because believe it is a real possibility.

Examples:

If she studies a lot, she will pass the exam.
They will go on holiday if they have the time.

On the other hand, if we feel that a situation is not very possible or that a situation is improbable we choose the second conditional.

Examples:

If she studied harder, she would pass the test.
They would go away for a week, if they had the time.

Here is another way of looking at this decision. Read the sentences with the speakers unspoken thought expressed in the parentheses. This opinion shows how the speaker decided between the first or second conditional.

  • If she studies a lot, she will pass the exam. (Jane's a good student.)

  • If he worked harder, he would pass the exam. (John doesn't take school seriously.)

  • Tom will take some time off next week if his boss says it's OK. (Tom's boss is a nice guy.)

  • Frank would take some time off next month, if he could get an OK from his supervisor. (Unfortunately, his supervisor isn't very nice and there's a lot of work to be done next month.)

As you can see from the examples above, the choice between the first or second conditional can express someone's opinion about the situation. Remember that the first conditional is often called the 'real conditional', whereas the second conditional is often referred to as the 'unreal conditional'. In other words, the real or conditional expresses something the speaker believes could happen, and the unreal or second conditional expresses something that the speaker doesn't believe could happen.

Conditional Form Practice and Review

To improve your understanding of conditionals, this conditional forms page reviews each of the four forms in detail. To practice conditional form structure, this real and unreal conditional form worksheet provides a quick review and practice exercises, the past conditional worksheet focuses on using the form in the past. Teachers can use this guide on how to teach conditionals, as well as this conditional forms lesson plan to introduce and practice the first and second conditional forms in class.
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