Conditional Words: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Conditionals are an important part of the English language. In this lesson, we're going to talk about conditional sentences and see what words are often used to communicate a condition.

The Conditional

How many times have you asked someone for a favor and received the response: ''On one condition.''? We're used to conditions in our lives, which is lucky for us because there are also conditions in our grammar. In English grammar, the conditional tense is what we use to discuss what could happen. We use this tense to talk about uncertainties, which let us communicate about the future, past, and possibilities. Just remember, there's always a condition.

Conditional Clauses

So, how do we use the conditional tense? Conditional phrases and words are found within the conditional clause, or the part of the sentence that sets up the condition. Look at this sentence: ''If it rains, then I will get wet''. Are you going to get wet? Only on the condition that it rains. Conditional sentences always have a conditional clause, which establishes the condition, and a main clause, which resolves it. Here are a few more examples of sentences with conditional clauses:

  • If we hadn't stopped for dinner, we wouldn't be late
  • If you had eaten lunch, we would still be on time
  • If you say you're still hungry, I'm going to kick you out of the car

Conditional Words

Now, how do we now when we're entering the conditional tense? Generally, we can tell because certain words clue us in. Re-read some of the sample conditional sentences we've already gone through. Do any words pop out? There are two main categories of conditional words that you'll frequently find in conditional sentences.

Conditional Conjunctions

First are the conditional conjunctions. A conjunction is a word that connects clauses or ideas in a sentence. Conditional conjunctions connect the condition to the resolution. There are a few major conditional conjunctions, but the most important by far is ''if''. Think about it--how hard is it to make a conditional sentence without the word ''if''? If you went to bed earlier, you'd be better rested. If I spoke Mandarin, I could move to China. If I hadn't robbed a bank, I wouldn't be in prison. Don't worry; I didn't really rob a bank. The point is, the word ''if'' let's us know that someone is setting up a conditional phrase. The main clause is only possible if the conditional clause applies.

''If'' may be the most widely used conditional conjunction, but it's not the only one. Check out these sentences:

  • Whenever I can, I like to read before bed
  • As long as I'm in Italy, I will eat pasta
  • Because I'm lonely, I will buy a cat
  • In order to understand this lesson, you will have to read it

All of these sentences contain a conditional clause and a main clause. Even without the word ''if'', we understand that something is only possible because of something else.

Conditional Verbs

The other thing to look for in a conditional sentence is the verb tense. Verbs in a conditional sentence will be in the conditional verb tense. You'll recognize this when you see it:

  • If I were rich, I would buy a mansion
  • If you hadn't spent your money, you could have bought a mansion too
  • We would have owned mansions if we had been better with money

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