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Teaching Conditional Sentences

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 4644 words Published: 13th Jul 2017

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The Teaching of Conditional Sentences

Part 1: Evaluation of the Textbook Treatment of Conditional Sentences

I. Introduction: Definition of Conditional Sentences

In grammar, conditional sentences refer to the discussion of factual implications or imaginary or hypothetical situations and their results. They express something that must happen or be true if another thing is to happen or be true (Hornby, 2000; Swan, 1996). Generally, conditional sentences consist of two main clauses – a main (‘conditional') clause containing a verb in a form with will or would, and a subordinate clause that is introduced by if (Parrott, 2000). The order of the two clauses can appear interchangeably. When the if-clause leads the sentence, normally a comma is used. However, when the conditional sentence takes the lead, no comma is found after it. In certain cases, the way we use this comma in conditional sentences lies ‘partly on their length and partly on personal preference' (Parrott, 2000, p. 231).

II. First Conditional

A. Basic Form

In the basic form of the first conditional, the verb in the if-clause takes the present tense, and the verb in the main or conditional clause takes the simple future.

If Clause

Conditional Clause

If + present tense,

Future tense


Conditional Clause

If Clause

Future tense

If + present tense

B. Meaning and Use

Generally, the first conditional or conditional sentence type one is used to express a probable condition and its probable result in the future (Soars & Liz, 2007; Swan, 1996; Thomson & Martinet, 1986). Nonetheless, it does not limit itself only to this use. Parrott (2000) points out that this type of conditional is employed to show ‘aspects of persuasion such as cajoling and negotiation and for giving warnings and making threats'(p. 232), as can be seen in the examples below.


[a] If you have enough rest, you will feel better.

[b] I'll cook for you this evening if you help me with this assignment.

[c] If he procrastinates, he'll miss the flight.

[d] I'll kill you if you don't stop your relationship with my sister.

Apart from these functions, the first conditional sentence can possibly appear in certain variations. Variations can be present in both the conditional clause and the if-clause. In the conditional clause, a range of other forms, such as may, might, can, must, should or imperative or any expression of command, request or advice, may be used instead of will, depending on what messages we want to send (Parrott, 2000; Thomson & Martinet, 1986). For example, if we want to show that something is possible, we can use either may or might instead of will, or when want to indicate permission, either may or can is possible. Moreover, when we want to advise or suggest someone to do something, we can use should or had better or imperative form. Examples below show these.


[a] If you drive fast, you may/might hit others on the road.

[b] If you don't feel well, you may/can leave early today.

[c] If you want to thoroughly enjoy Christmas, you should finish your assignment well before the deadline.

[c1] If you want to gain weight, you had better eat and sleep more.

[c2] If don't feel well with coffee, never drink it again.

Interestingly, two present tenses can also appear in both the if-clause and the conditional clause. When it is the case, it is usually used to indicate automatic or habitual results (Thomson & Martinet, 1986). An example below shows this usage. It should be noted here that this kind of use can mostly be seen in the zero conditional, which mainly discusses factual situation or natural phenomena. Therefore, students at a lower level should not be presented this difference.


If there is a shortage of any product, prices of that product go up.

Similar to the variations in the conditional clause, we can also use a range of present forms in the if-clause, depending on the meaning we want to convey (Parrott, 2000; Thomson & Martinet, 1986). For example, we can use present continuous or present perfect instead of present simple to show a present action or a future arrangement. When we want to show that something is less likely possible and it may happen only by chance, we can use should because it helps weaken the possibility (Parrott, 2000). All these can be found in the examples below.


[a1] If you are coming over next week, I'll bake our traditional cakes for you.

[a2] If the letter hasn't arrived by the next hour, we'll have to phone the post office.

[b] If she should call me at night, I won't answer.

Moreover, we can also find the use of will or would in the if-clause when we want to indicate polite requests. However, often will is seen as less polite than would (Swan, 1996). At this point, it should also be noted that should can also be used in replacement of if, usually in more formal, written contexts (ibid, 2000), without any change of the meaning (Azar, 2002). This kind of use indicates offer or suggestion. Here are the two examples:

If you will/would carry this bag, I'll treat you lunch.

Should you need more help, you can call me any time.

III. Second Conditional

A. Basic Form

In general, the basic form of Type 2 conditional uses the past tense in the if-clause, and would + bare infinitive or ‘the conditional tense' in the conditional clause to ‘distance' our language from reality (Swan, 1996; Thomson & Martinet, 1986).

If Clause

Conditional Clause

If + past tense,

would + bare infinitive

Conditional Clause

If Clause

would + bare infinitive

If + past tense

B. Meaning and Use

The second conditional is used to talk about an unreal situation and its probable results now or in the future. The situation or condition is improbable, impossible, untrue, imaginary or contrary to know facts (Azar, 2002; Parrott, 2000; Soars & Liz, 2007; Swan, 1996; Thomson & Martinet, 1986). It is important to note that there is no time difference between Type 1 and 2 conditionals, and the past tense in the if-clause of Type 2 conditional is not a true past, but a subjunctive (Parrott, 2000; Thomson & Martinet, 1986). However, while Type 1 conditional is viewed as a real possibility, Type 2 is not the case. Besides, were instead of was is more often found in the if-clause in more formal sentences, and many people consider it more correct, especially in American English (Parrott, 2000; Swan, 1996; Thomson & Martinet, 1986). Examples below show these uses.


[a] If I had enough saving, I'd buy that grand house.

[b] If I were rich, I'd be happy!

[c] If the plan crashed, I'd be terrified.

Not different from the first conditional, the second conditional likewise has its possible variations, in both the if-clause and the conditional clause. For the variation in the conditional clause, we can use, for example, might or could or the past tense in place of would to talk about several other things. This ranges from ability or permission to the past automatic or habitual actions. Below examples show this use.


[a1] If she applied for that position again, she might get it.

[a2] If they had tickets, they could enter the theater.

[b] If he got home late, his wife slept first.

In the if-clause, instead of using if with a simple past, it is possible to have if with a past continuous, indicating a wish for a difference for a temporary situation. Moreover, sometimes were + infinitive, in placement of a past tense form in the if-clause, is used to make the situation more hypothetical or polite. At other times, the inversion of the if-subject and were can be seen, and when were takes the if-subject's place, if is then left out. The meaning is still the same. Here are the examples:


[a] She doesn't like the children but now they are going to her home. If they were not going there, she'd be a lot fine.

[b] If they were to study harder, their teacher would be much happier to help them.

[b1] Were they to study harder, their teacher would be much happier to help them.

IV. Third Conditional

A. Basic Form

The basic form of the third conditional takes the past perfect in the if-clause, and would with have plus past participle, or ‘the perfect conditional' in the conditional clause.

If Clause

Conditional Clause

If + past perfect,

would + have + past participle


Conditional Clause

If Clause

would + have + past participle

If + past perfect

B. Meaning and Use

The third conditional is generally used to speculate about the past events, which are unreal or imaginary, and about the ways things might have been affected just because how other things happened or did not happen. This conditional is also used to talk about regret, criticism or excuse (Parrott, 2000; Thomson & Martinet, 1986; Vince & Emmerson, 2003).


[a] Kate would have been nice if Peter had treated her equally.

[b] If she hadn't gone out late at night, she wouldn't have been rapped.

[c] If my car hadn't broken down, I'd have been able to catch you up.

The same as the first and second conditional, the third conditional has its possible variations, in both the if-clause and the conditional clause. In the conditional clause, in place of would, we can use, for example, might or could to discuss ability, possibility or permission.


[a1] If we had found him earlier, we could have saved his life

[a2] If we had found him earlier, we might have saved him.

[a3] If our documents had been in order, we could have left at once.

In the if-clause, had can be used in the form of inversion. When had is used, then if is to be deleted. No meaning is changed in such usage.

If you had asked for his permission, he wouldn't have been that mad at you


Had you asked for his permission, he wouldn't have been that mad at you.

V. ‘Unless' in conditional sentences

In conditional sentences we can use a wide range of conjunctions, such as supposing, as long as, provided, unless, etc., instead of if. Here, however, only unless is discussed.

Unless is usually perceived as sharing similar meaning with if…not (Swan, 1996; Thomson & Martinet, 1986). However, as Parrott (2000) argues unless has a ‘strong degree of reservation' compared to if…not.


I won't go with you unless you pick me up.

I'll go with you only if you pick me up.

There is an exceptional case when unless cannot be used in replacement to if…not. We would rather use if…not instead of unless if it refers to something negative that would be the main cause of the situation we are talking about (Swan, 1996). Instead of saying, ‘My wife will be very upset unless I get back tomorrow,' we say, ‘My wife will be very upset if I don't get back tomorrow'. This being so because the root cause of the wife's unhappiness is if the speaker does not go back.

VI. Implications for teaching conditional sentences

Different types of conditional sentences are taught at different levels. A general suggestion given by Parrott (2000) is that the first conditional should be introduced at an elementary or intermediate level; the second at a lower intermediate; and the third at an upper intermediate level.

As for the Secondary 3, Band 2 students who are seen as pre-intermediate level, they should be introduced to all the four types of conditional. However, the introduction of details or variations of each type should be carefully considered. As can be seen from the detailed explanation of the three types above, there are many variations in each type, in both the if-clause and the conditional clause. The Secondary 3 students at this level should therefore not be taught all these variations. Otherwise, this will become a very good confusion for them. However, if there are some strong students in the class and if the teacher is ambitious, he or she can introduce his or students to some kind of the variations of the conditional clause Type 1 and 2. These variations could be the use of might or may instead of will in the first conditional, and might or could instead of would in the second conditional. The third conditional is already very difficult and the students should not be made confused because of these variations.

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It should be noted that before all these variations can be introduced, teachers should make sure that the students are made clear with the basic forms of the four types. Furthermore, the way how the conditionals are punctuated should also be ensured since for most Chinese students, recognizing the order of conditional sentences is difficult for them. This being so because the order of clauses does not go with the order in their language (Parrott, 2000).

VII. Treatment of a Hong Kong textbook on conditionals

The Living English 3B by Nancarrow, Thomas and Yuen (2005) used for Secondary 3 features all the four types of conditionals. Type 0, 1 and 2 are introduced mainly in terms of revision and of some forms of variations. Type 3 is presented virtually exclusively in form of basic rule and usage. However, there is no introduction of conjunctions which can be used in place of if. Perhaps this may be helpful for the students instead, for they are not overwhelmed with too many things at this level.

The presentation of the use of the first conditional is simple and well enough for the students to understand. Nevertheless, there seems a bit vague for weaker students to fully recognize the changing of the order of the clauses, explained in the note on page 43. The students should be drawn to the fact that there is no change in meaning even if the position of the two clauses is changed. Another thing is that there is an explanation of variation of this conditional in the Teacher's Book (TB), which requires teachers to tell their students but which is generally not necessary at this level.

There are two problems in the explanation of the first conditional. The first one is with its description of usage. The explanation tells that this type of conditional is used to describe ‘the future consequences of a situation that is true now' (Nancarrow, et al., 2005, p. 43). The wording here looks easy but it may not be the case for the students to grasp the whole picture, and thus needs revision. The second problem concerns with the variation of this type. The book explains that it is possible to use can or may instead of will. However, in the Student's Book (SB), it does not give any example of this possibility, nor does it indicate what it means when they are used. A short explanation is available only in TB, though. For the second conditional, it carries only the last problem of the first conditional. In other words, SB gives the same explanation that variation is possible for the second conditional, but fails to show the usage and meaning. Again, only TB explains this variation in more details.

The presentation of the third conditional in this book is very well structured. It introduces the students to the most basic use of this conditional through clear explanation and examples. It suits the students' level quite well.

One last note is that the textbook should not introduce the variations of the first three types of conditional. Ironically, the title is devoted only to revising, yet the students are also presented with variations. At this level, the students should learn mainly the basic or general forms and usage. Variations should be presented in the next levels. However, one good thing is that there is no presentation of conjunctions, which can be used to replace if. It is good to make sure that the students can understand the basic first.

Part Two: Critique and Reflection

I. Critique on Ms Leung's teaching

Ms Leung is revising conditional sentences Type 1 and 2 and trying to introduce Type 3 and conjunction unless to her Secondary 3 students. Certain problems appear as she handles these grammatical aspects in each excerpt. Among all problems, her inadequacy of knowledge of the underlying system of language is the central one and in turn affects the ways she handles her teaching.

In excerpt 1, in which she revises the first and second conditionals, Ms Leung generally appears unclear herself in what she explains to her students. She asks her students to remember that with Type 1 conditional, it has to be future in the main clause. She yet does not point out specifically what kind of future tense it is to which she is referring since there are many future tenses. Although this is apparently clear that she is referring to the simple future will, being a well-language aware teacher, she should present it to the students to clear confusion it may have. Concerning her explanation of the use of this conditional, I feel the word choice is rather ambiguous. She tells her students that conditional Type 1 is for a prediction. Even though the form of will here is used as the normal future form in general, there is a significant difference between the use of will in conditional sentences and in general sentences. In a general sentence, will is used ‘for unplanned future events, or to make predictions that aren't based on present or past evidence' (Parrott, 2000, p. 170). However, in a Type 1 conditional sentence, the use of will in the main or conditional clause is to indicate a probable result, not a prediction of it. This can be implied that the teacher is not truly well aware of the content subject.

When Ms Leung revises the second conditional in the same excerpt, she seems to create similar problems as when she handles the first conditional. The first problem concerns with the relationship between her own explanation of the use of the second conditional and her examples. She gives two examples to her students and informs the students that the second conditional is used to talk about ‘things which are not so probable, they are possible but not very probable'. To some degree, the examples do carry an improbable meaning. However, the two are just contrary to known fact, with the first example indicates an imaginary future situation, and the second an imaginary present situation. The second example also indicates clearly that it is advice, which the teacher misses to convey to her students. The second problem is the extent of her explanation, in addition to the first problem. She does not make it clear to her students whether the past tense used in the if-clause refers to the real past, or present or future speculation. Some students may be still doubtful about this tense, though they have already gone through it. This implies that the teacher is not well aware of the students' difficulties or that she is not thinking about the language content from the viewpoint of the learners (Andrews, 2007).

In excerpt 2, she introduces the third conditional, and here two critical problems come about. The first one is about overgeneralization of the conditional form in both the if-clause and the main clause. Ms Leung presents to her students that all the third conditionals begin with if plus Past Perfect. To say that all the third conditionals start with if is already too exaggerated. She seems not to take into consideration the variation of this form. It is questionable in her explanation whether it is still called Type 3 conditional when ‘had' is used instead of if in the case of inversion.

As she goes on to explain the form in the main clause, Ms Leung makes the same overgeneralized mistake. She mentions that would have done is always used in the main clause. This rule again ignores the fact that there are variations in the third conditional too. In addition, it creates confusion in the use of ‘have done'. As can be seen from her example, ‘done' is not used with ‘have'. Instead, it is ‘woken' that is being used with ‘have'. The example and the rule then do not match, and so another question arrives whether this is a conditional sentence or not.

The second problem in her presentation of this Type 3 conditional is the fact that there is no explanation of when it is used at all. She presents to her students only the form and a single example. Why or when the third conditional is used is not explained. Although the students may know how to structure this conditional, they surely do not know when to use it. This seems like it is nothing for the students to learn because how useful it is to use this conditional they are not aware of. One last note is that the teacher seems not willing to give more examples to help with her explanation. This insufficient example would mean to limit the general understanding of the students, and so they will not learn.

Ms Leung finally finishes her class by trying to introduce another language point. She teaches her students how to use unless in place of if…not. Even though she can manage to tell her students relatively well that unless can be used instead of if…not when the if-clause is negative, she perhaps may not be well aware that meaning of the two sentences is not exactly the same as she has claimed. According to Parrott (2000) unless carters a stronger degree of reservation compared to if…not. This shows that the teacher's knowledge of the subject-matter is insufficient enough. Besides, Ms Leung is unable to clarify when to use unless instead of if…not. From the beginning of this introduction, she tries to tell her students that they can use unless sometimes. Nonetheless, she ends up not explaining when exactly, and so abruptly changes the way she presents to the students. This perhaps indicates also that she lacks ‘strategic competence' (Bachman, 1990).

Through her teaching of all the language points, it is obviously clear that Ms Leung does not check with her students whether or not they have understood what has been taught. Instead, she seems to rush from one language point to another very quickly. This seems that she does not care about the students learning or that she wants to escape from the students' questions. An implication from this behavior and her so far inability to clarify each language point is that she is short of necessary subject-matter knowledge as well as language competency. These inadequacies will in turn impact the way the teacher handles the teaching in a negative way. According to Andrews (2007), professional factors of teacher affect the teacher's attitudes in a way that the teacher is afraid of giving serious attention to language-related issues. Because of this, the learners cannot get a meaningful learning from the teacher.

II. Reflection of what can be done differently better

If I were Ms Leung, I would adopt a different approach to teaching this language point to the students in this target group. As can be seen from her teaching, she is trying both to revise two conditional types and to introduce two other major language points at the same time. This teaching is already too much with the time available and the target group, and therefore can be unfruitful. ‘At different levels of language learning students will need to be shown different aspects of grammar and teachers will need to decide how detailed their approach to grammar will be (Joyce & Burns, 1999, p. 66).

If I were the teacher myself, I would not introduce conjunction unless to the students. At this level, the students should be taught only the basic form or marked feature, that is, if…not first. The unmarked feature such as unless should be left for the students to learn by themselves naturally before the right time comes (Ellis, 2006). I would therefore use the available time for teaching this conjunction to focus more on the revising of Type 1 and 2 conditionals and on the elaboration of Type 3, for I believe this intensive teaching will help them progress through the sequence of stages involved in the acquisition of that structure (ibid, 2006). For the explanation of Type 1, I would simplify the wording that the teacher uses to discuss when this conditional is used. Instead of telling the students that this conditional is used for predictions, I would say it is used to show a possible condition and its probable result in the future. In the same way for Type 2, I would tell the students that it is used to talk about an unreal situation and its probable results now or in the future, or to give advice to someone. I would also draw their attention to the fact that the past tense used in the if-clause is not the real past, but a subjunctive which indicates unreality or improbability. In addition, I would give the examples that truly reflect its usage, so that the examples can help facilitate the students understanding in a better way.

For Type 3 conditional, I would first change the extreme generalization the teacher makes in both clauses. I would tell the students that in the if-clause, we usually use the Past Perfect, and would plus Past Participle in the main clause. Then I would give them 3 examples. From this, I would present to them when we use this third conditional. The students will find it easier to understand the central meaning with the facilitation of the examples on the board. If I had some time left, I would establish connections between form and meaning for them to practice the language point since this is a fundamental aspect of language acquisition (VanPatten, Williams, & Rott, 2004, as cited in Ellis, 2006).


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