Conditional mood

The conditional mood (sometimes described as the conditional tense) is a verb form in many languages, in which a verb root is modified to form verb tenses, moods, or aspects expressing degrees of certainty or uncertainty and hypothesis about past, present, or future. However, the English language is structured radically differently from many languages in that verbs do not conjugate in the same way, and it therefore becomes impossible to identify a conjugated verb form that may be identified as conditional.

But of course English speakers still need to say things conditionally, and so the existence of a non-conjugated form in the English language which is parallel to the conditional verb form of other languages can be identified.

English has four forms of conditional, conventionally called the zero, first, second, and third. Here are examples of each:


Zero conditional

Zero conditional specifies results of real or already known conditions in the ongoing present:

If water is heated to 100 degrees, it boils.
Whenever it rains, I take my umbrella.

You can see that the conditional has two distinct verb groups: the condition (if water is heated) and the result (it boils). Both groups use a simple present tense in English in the zero condition, and they express some kind of universality.

First conditional

First conditional asserts results of possible or expected conditions in the future, or of commonplace conditions in an ongoing present:

If it rains later, the roads will be wet.
If someone rings me, I'll usually pick up the phone.

Here, the condition verb group is still present: we are still expressing universality. However, there is a degree of choice implied in the consequence, and so the modal will is used. In more marked forms, it is possible to substitute will with other first dimension modals (can, may, shall, dare). If you ring me I (may/shall/can/dare) come.

Second conditional

Basically, the second conditional postulates results for as yet unknown or unreal conditions in a present time, or for ones not expected in a future time:

If she were at work today, you could find her on the next floor up.
If I were king, you would be queen.
If you won the lottery tomorrow, what would you do?

In each sentence above, both verb groups display a standard English tense behaviour: they have backstepped. The sentence still refers to present or future time, but the simple present of zero and first conditionals has apparently moved to a simple past ("if you won the lottery", really a subjunctive), and the first dimension modal will has become the second dimension would. Thus in the sentence "If I were king, you would be queen", were is subjunctive while would be expresses a conditional. In order to make the meaning more remote, the verbs have moved away from the present, demonstrating how forms of the second conditional may signal hypothesis, deference or courtesy:

If the fog lifted, we could see Inverness Castle just ahead on the left.
If I were you, I would talk to her.
If you passed me the salt, I'd be happy.
Could you bring me a glass of water?

The formal structure of the second conditional is:
If + simple past/subjunctive, would + verb

Again, would can be substituted in marked forms by other second dimension modals (could, should, might):

If you rang me, I (would/could/might/should) be able to come.

Third conditional

The third conditional postulates results for past conditions which were never real:

If you had rung me, I would have come.
If Thomas Paine had been born in the mid-20th Century, he would undoubtedly have kept a blog.
If I had lived during the Elizabethan era, I would have attended all of Shakespeare's plays.

Third conditional moves the verb form a further stage back to relate to one another events that didn't happen in the past, rather than ones that did. The structure of the third conditional is:
If + past perfect, would have + past participle


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