How to use the first conditional

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Welcome to today’s Lunchtime Lessons post. This week we are looking at connected speech. Our Lunchtime Lessons are free Online English classes where we look at areas of English which are often difficult for students.

If you didn’t manage to join us for our live session, you can catch up with the highlights of the class below. If you’d like to join our live session for the chance to ask the teacher questions, you can book your place directly on our website. These classes are 100% free and are on Tuesdays at 12pm.

Why and how do we use the first conditional?

First of all, let’s think about why we use conditionals. What is the purpose of the conditional structure? I notice that students often get really obsessed with how to construct conditionals and lose the focus on what they actually mean and what they are used for. To use conditionals correctly it is really important to stop only focusing on how to put them together. We need to start focusing and understanding their function.
 
And that’s what we are going to do now. There are four different kinds of conditionals and each of these has a different function. Some of them are used more commonly than others. But today, we’re starting with the first conditional. And we’ll also see that there is quite a difference between how we learn conditionals in a grammar book and how it’s actually used in a more natural spoken English.

So, what is the purpose of the first conditional? 

A conditional always has a condition. That means it always has two aspects. It will always have a situation and a consequence. In terms of the first conditional we’re using it to talk about a possible or likely situation now or in the future.
 
Let’s look at an example. As a conditional always has two aspects, situation and consequence, it needs to have two clauses. This would work as follow:
 
Have time – This is our possible situation. We express that possible situation in the if clause. You’ll notice that we very often use other expression than if, but to make things easier we call it if clause.
 
do the shopping – This is our likely consequence. We express that likely consequence in the auxiliary clause. The auxiliary we use can vary a lot, we’ll have a look at this later on.
 
Now that we have defined our two clauses, we can fill them into the standard conditional structure.

The standard conditionals structure which we learning lots of grammar books is as follow:
If + present simple (to talk about the situation) / will + infinitive (to talk about the consequence)
So, our example sentence would be: If I have time, I will do the shopping.
This is a very likely and possible thing that’s going to happen in the future.

Alternatives to the standard structure

However, there are lots of different ways that we can use to express a possible or likely situation in the future. Have a look at following example sentences in the image below. What do you notice about the sentences? What structures are they using and what kind of auxiliaries?

Example sentences of alliterative first conditional structures
Alternative first conditional structures

See below which alternatives I used for the present simple and for will:

  • If I’ve finished work (present perfect) by 5pmI’m going to go to the gym​
  • If he’s running (present continuous) a marathonhe must be really fit​
  • I might do some work if I’m feeling better (present continous)
  • If you finish by 4pm, I can help you​
  • ​If he’s been working (present perfect continuous) all dayhe’s going to be exhausted

As you can see, we are using a really wide range of language in those example sentences. And this range of language is giving all of these sentences a slightly different meaning, a slightly different aspect, slightly different pragmatics. For example, if he’s running a marathon, the use of the present continuous tells me that it’s an action which is in progress. It’s not completed, he’s doing it now. The must in he must be really fit, gives the auxiliary clause a speculative tone. All those little variations are giving slightly different pieces of information.
 

So, what’s a better way to think about the structure of a first conditional?

Following that, the standard structure for the first conditional is not quite right. A better way to think about how to construct the first conditional would be as follow:
 
Situation clause: If + present aspect
Consequence clause: future aspect + infinitive

If we follow that formula, we have more flexibility in how to build the first conditional. We are not limited to only using the present simple in the if clause. We also can use, for example, the present continuous or the present perfect or any other tense that expresses a present aspect. That way we can vary the sentence depending on what we want to express.


And it is the same with the consequence clause. It doesn’t need to be will. There are a lot of other ways to express a future aspect, such as can, which is a modal verb for future possibility, going to which is being used to talk about predictions or might and must, which are used to speculate about the future. All of those are possible to use in a first conditional to express a possible or likely situation in the future. I cannot repeat it enough, possible situation in the future. Because I really want us to understand what the purpose of the first conditional is.

Future time clauses

Let’s come back to the if clause. I said before that we quite often don’t use if in the if clause because there are many other words we can use to express the same. Let’s have a look at some examples and find some alternative expressions for if.

Example sentences showing future time clauses in English
Example future time clause sentences

Future Time Clauses

Don’t get confused by the name of those words, just remember them as alternatives for if.
What I really recommend doing with those alternatives for if is to spend a little bit of time with a very good bilingual dictionary and translating them into your language, because that’s the way that you’re going to have the clearest idea of what they are representing. And, if possible, find some examples to make sure that those translations are correct.

All the words in bold are possible replacements for if. These words are what we call future time clauses. The purpose of a future time clause is to say that an event will happen at a certain time. So, it’s nothing particularly complicated. And although we call them future time clauses, we actually form them with a present aspect. The future aspect is always used in the consequence clause and not in the situation/if clause.

What do you think, are those future time clauses something we use a lot in English? To figure that out, we should probably ask ourselves how often we talk about time. I think the answer to that is pretty obvious, we speak about time quite a lot. Especially if you work in a business environment. You’ll hear those expressions for example in meetings when it comes to scheduling, planning and organizing things. Considering that, it’s very important to know what those words mean and how to use them.

Pronunciation

Another thing we need to remember is pronunciation. We actually already talked about this in another Lunchtime Lesson, but here is some quick revision. Firstly, you have to think of the pronunciation of going toWhen speaking quickly we’ll say gonna and not going to. And don’t forget the block of sound. Your block of sound is going to + infinitive verb. Have a look at the example sentence below. For best practice, start the video at 13min to repeat after Claire.

An image explaining the pronunciation of going  to in fluent English
Pronunciation of going to

The other thing I would like to revise is the pronunciation of will. When we speak quickly and fluently we have to contract will with the subject. In spoken English we do this with any subject. In written English however, we only contract on subject pronouns. For example: Claire will be late. In spoken English we would contract it as follows: Claire’ll be late. but we wouldn’t actually write the contraction, , we will always write Claire will be late.
If you’d like to do some pronunciation practice with will, start the video at 14.30min. And if you wish to properly review going to and will you can do this here.

What we need to remember about the first conditional

Let’s summarize what we want to remember from this lesson. Firstly, we need to be aware that we shouldn’t focus too much on the traditional conditional structure we see in grammar books (if + present simple / will + infinitive). Instead we should focus on the idea of if + present aspect / will + future aspect. And remember, future aspect can include modals for future speculation and possibility.
 
The other thing we want to remember are future time clauses. They are very often used for organizing and scheduling especially in any kind of business English format.
 
And finally, the most important thing you need to remember from this lesson, the pragmatics of this structure. We use the first conditional to express a possible or likely situation now or in the future.
 
In a couple of weeks our conditional session will continue and we’ll be looking at the second, third and mixed conditionals. In the end we’ll also have a session to review of all conditionals. But that’s it for today.

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