IELTS Grammar >> Conditionals for real and unreal situations
What do you do at weekends?
What will you do if you get the chance to work abroad?
Which famous person would you like to meet if you had the chance?
It’s likely that the examiner will ask you questions about ‘real’ or ‘imagined’ situations in the IELTS Speaking exam. In this lesson we’ll look at how conditional structures can help you do this.
We often need to express something like ‘If x does (or doesn’t) happen then y does or (doesn’t happen)’. This might be to describe something:
- ‘real’ like a fact: ‘What happens if … ‘
- or an imagined situation: ‘What will/would you do if …’
One of the ways in which we describe situations like this is to use ‘conditional’ structures. Conditionals usually contain two main clauses along with ‘if” or sometimes ‘when’, ‘provided’ or ‘unless’. (See ‘If, provided, unless or when’ if you are not sure about the difference between these words).
There are 5 different conditional structures that we might use: ‘zero’, ‘first’, ‘second’, ‘third’ and ‘mixed’ conditionals. In this lesson we’ll look at ‘zero’, ‘first’ and ‘second conditionals’.
a) Zero conditionals are used to describe factual situations. The present tense is generally used in each clause and (as with all conditionals) the clauses can be reversed.
In the Speaking exam, you could use zero conditionals to talk about you, your routines or facts about your country. For example:
i) If I don’t get up early / I tend to get a headache.
I tend to get a headache / if I don’t get up early.
ii) I attend classes on Friday / provided I don’t have to work late.
Provided I don’t have to work late / I attend classes on Friday.
iii) When it rains / we get heavy floods.
We get heavy floods / when it rains.
b) First conditionals are used to describe a likely future result given a certain condition. The ‘if’ (condition) clause is usually in the present tense, whilst the following (result) clause often contains a verb like ‘will’, ‘can’, or ‘might’ depending on the meaning.
In the Speaking exam you could use first conditionals to talk about possible future plans. For example:
If I pass IELTS, I might start a teacher-training course. (It’s a possibility)
If I pass IELTS, I will start a teacher training course. (It’s a definite intention)
If I pass IELTS, I could start a teacher training course. (It would be an option)
TIP! A common mistake is to use ‘will’ in both clauses. Although there are situations where this is OK, generally you should NOT use ‘will’ in the if clause. For example, this statement is incorrect:
If I will get the job, I will buy myself a car. (X)
c) Second conditionals are used to describe an unlikely situation. The ‘if’ (condition) clause is usually in the past tense, whilst the following (result) clause often contains a verb like ‘would’ or ‘could’.
In the Speaking exam you could use second conditionals to answer a question that asks you to imagine or hypothesise about a situation. For example:
If I were rich, I could spend my life travelling.
If I had the power, I would give everyone a pay-rise.
5 Minute Functions
If you are interested in finding out about other ways to imagine or speculate in English, watch our ‘5-Minute Functions’ video.
Over to you
Complete the following statements with information about yourself using the conditional structure in brackets:
- (Zero) If I work too hard …
- (Zero) When I have time …
- (First) If the weather is nice this weekend …
- (First) When I pass IELTS …
- (Second) If I had the chance …
- (Second) If I were in charge of my country …
Next Step? Find out what the typical grammar mistakes are that IELTS candidates tend to make and practise some of these areas. Sign up to IELTS Speaking: Advanced for grammar tests and a whole lot more!