How to Use the Zero & First Conditionals in Real Life

Feb 1, 2017 | 22 comments

This series on Using English Conditionals in Real Life has been updated. The original lessons on this topic were published between November 2015 and January 2016.

I’m happy you’re joining me for this lesson! I know one of your goals is to add variety to your English when you speak, to use more advanced grammar, to understand others and respond easily in English…

And that’s why I’m doing this lesson series on Using English Conditionals in Real Life.

With today’s focus on Zero and First Conditionals, you’ll learn how we use uses these grammar forms to express:

  • Truths
  • Probabilities
  • Future Consequences
  • Promises and Warnings

Most English classes and grammar books teach you the basic rules of conditionals, such as: If + present simple + will + infinitive

Certainly, that can be useful. But it doesn’t help you understand how to really use conditionals in your daily English life. So let’s change that. And don’t forget to check out additional lessons on the conditional.

Start using the first conditional more easily in English.

Lesson by Annemarie

Zero vs. First Conditional in English

  • When I’m too tired to cook, I order take-out. (zero conditional)
  • If I’m too tired to cook tonight, I’ll some take-out. (first conditional)

These two sentences are very similar but there is a difference in meaning between the two – can you identify the difference?

Read the sentences again and answer:

  • Which one is a general truth?
  • Which one is a likely probability?

If you’re not sure, let’s take a closer look at the Zero and First Conditional to help you answer those questions.

How to Use the Zero Conditional in English

Expressing General Truths

We can use the Zero Conditional to show or express a general truth. To do this, we use the Present Simple in both clauses. For example:

  • If you heat ice, it melts.

That is a truth. Plain and simple.

Tip: With the Zero Conditional, we often replace “if” with “when.” For example:

  • When/If I drink too much coffee, I get a headache.

 

Talking About Routines

We can also use this Zero Conditional structure to talk about our routines. Routines are things that we do regularly. For example:

  • When I wake up, I always drink coffee first.
  • When he goes to work, he rides his bicycle.
  • When I arrive in the morning, I check my email first.

Can you think of some similar examples? Share them in the comments below.

How to Use the First Conditional in English

Probabilities

Can you predict – with 100% certainty – what will happen tomorrow? Do you always know exactly what will happen in the future? Probably not (but if you can – please tell me! I’d love to know the future!). 🙂

Okay. So we can’t tell the future with 100% certainty but we can express that we think something is very likely to happen or is probable.

And for this, we use the First Conditional. This form shows us something is likely in the future or very likely in the future based on a present situation or event.

Another helpful way to think of this is a REAL situation or event. Sometimes we refer to the First Conditional as the Real Conditional. Let’s look at an example:

  • If it snows a lot tomorrow (present situation), the city will cancel school (future probability).

We are not 100% certain that the city will cancel school, but it is likely. We use the future tense (-the city will cancel school) to show that we are talking about a probable result in the future and it is a real. Here are two more examples:

  • If it rains tomorrow, I will not go on my hike.
  • If we complete this project under budget, the customer will be thrilled.

 

Future Consequences

Sometimes a present situation or event can have a future consequence. These consequences may be positive or negative, for example:

  • Pizza sounds amazing for dinner! But if I eat it, I’ll feel terrible about it in the morning. → the future, negative consequence is I’ll feel terrible about it
  • Sure, salads seem boring sometimes. But if I eat something healthy, I’ll sleep better. → a future, positive consequence
  • If we don’t complete this project on time, the boss will be furious. → no one likes to make her boss angry… definitely a future, negative consequence.

Promises and Warnings

  • If you cook dinner tonight, I will do the dishes. (promise)
  • I will do all my homework now if you let me stay up late. (promise – imagine a child saying this to a parent)
  • If you do that one more time, I won’t let you go to the party tomorrow night! (warning — imagine a parent upset with her child about something)
  • If you don’t pay your invoice immediately, we will cancel your subscription. (warning)

The First Conditional is great for making promises to others or giving a warning.

Above I used the example warning: If you don’t pay your invoice immediately, we will cancel your subscription. This is warning to a client or customer. It is also a much more professional way to say: Pay now!

Here are more workplace examples:

  • If the apartment becomes vacant, the owner will (likely) lose 2-3 months of payment. (warning)
  • If we don’t complete this project on time, we will lose our client to our competition. (warning)
  • If you reduce your price by 7%, we will sign the contract. (promise – could be used in bargaining or negotiating)
  • We will compromise on the costs if you agree to our terms of service. (promise – again this could be used in bargaining or negotiating)

After you’ve watched the video and reviewed the lesson, I’d love to hear from you!

Think about your daily life – either your personal life or business life – and answer these questions.

  1. What truths or routines can you share using the Zero Conditional?
  2. What probabilities, consequences, promises or warnings can you use for work or for your daily life with the First Conditional?

Write down a couple examples in the comments section to practice. I will be sure to provide you with feedback.

Have a great week! – Annemarie

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