First and Second Conditional Sentences

First and Second Conditional Sentences in English: what’s the difference, and why is it important?

Second conditional sentences … first conditional sentences – what’s the difference?  And why are they important in academic writing?  

In this blog post, we dive into these two key conditional types, looking at the difference in what they mean and how they are used. In a future post, we’ll come back and look at the other two main types of conditionals – known as the third conditional and the zero conditional.  If you want to stay up to date on that, make sure to bookmark our blog page, follow us on Facebook or join our mailing list.  For today though, let’s talk about English conditionals in general.

And if you want to improve your academic vocabulary and grammar today – NOW – click ‘Start Learning’ and begin your journey to academic success TODAY.

Master Academic Language Skills today

Academic success is just a click away

Now some of you might be thinking “this is ridiculous – I already know conditionals – I don’t need to study them again”.  And that’s fine – if you really do, please – have a great day.

But here’s the thing, in all our experience as IELTS examiners, OET assessors, EAP teachers and more – most students don’t know how to use more than one type of conditional.  So that’s why we’re doing this – because it’s a problem – and we can help you fix it TODAY.  

So if you want to master first and second conditional sentences and have a good idea of how the others work, too – read on!

English Conditionals: what are they and why are they important?

Conditionals are a big deal in the English language.  They are important because they allow you to link two different events with a condition.  Let’s look at an example to help us explain this:

second conditional and first conditional example demonstrated using chocolate as an example

If I only eat chocolate, I will be happy but also very fat.  

So there are clearly two parts to this sentence – broken up by the comma → this guy “,”.  Let’s make it clearer with some colour coding…  

first conditional example sentence - featuring chocolate!

So the part in blue says what will happen (i.e., I will be happy but fat) if the part in red happens (i.e., I only eat chocolate).  

According to this sentence, if I eat other things and/or don’t only eat chocolate I won’t be happy and very fat.  It’s a bit of a 


But so what, you probably already know this, right?  Why are we talking about this then?

Great question.  As we said above, most students don’t know how to use more than one type of conditional.  And for 99% of English language students, the one we have just looked at is it!  

So let’s compare this sentence with another one very like it to what the difference in meaning really is.

First Conditional Sentences vs Second Conditional Sentences

second conditional and first conditional example demonstrated using chocolate as an example

Compare these two sentences:

Now – two quick questions: 

  • What is the difference in form (i.e., grammar) between these two sentences?
  • What is the difference in meaning between these two sentences?

Take a minute and have a think – and when you’re ready to continue, scroll down…

Alright, let’s start with form.

The Difference in Form

As you can see there’s not a huge amount of difference here.  In fact, there’s only two words that change. 

  • Firstly, the verb in the red part of the sentence, and
  • Secondly, the modal (i.e., will/would in this case – but in can be other modals like ‘may’, or ‘might’) changes.
That’s it!
The only other thing that’s remotely important about the form is something you probably already know.  You can reverse these two clauses – like this:  

You’re probably thinking “that’s easy!”. And you’re probably right – the problem isn’t the grammar itself – it’s the difference in meaning. Let’s turn to that now

The Difference in Meaning

So looking back at our two sentences:

And looking at these two handsome fellows here…

second conditional sentences shown through pictures to support student understanding of the conditional sentences examples

Who is more likely to say which sentence?

Well, hopefully you’d agree with us that the guy on the left (i.e., the one holding the apple) is more likely to say the first sentence (ifeatwill). 

On the other hand, the guy on the right (i.e., the muscly guy looking at the burger) would be more likely to say the second sentence (ifatewould).

And this is the key to the difference between the first and second conditional. 

The first conditional talks about possible futures/outcomes.  In short, because the guy with the apple looks like he enjoys his chocolate (and we’re not judging – we love it too!), the second part of that sentence is possible.  

By contrast, the second conditional talks about hypothetical/imaginary futures/outcomes.  So in this case, as hungry for unhealthy food as the muscly guy on the right looks, the second part of the sentence is much less likely.  

Is that clear now?

No problem – just glad we could help.

But that brings us to the end of our HeadStart Guide on First and Second Conditionals  – we hope it’s been useful! As always, we’d love to hear from you if you have any questions or comments – write us a post below or follow us on Facebook.   Or, if you want to get more of these blog posts straight to your inbox – join our mailing list.  Or if you have a question or a topic that you’d like us to write a blog post (or even better – a full lesson) about – email us!  We read every email.

Want to practice your new knowledge of first and second conditional sentences?

That sounds like an excellent idea to us.  Well, if you’re interested, you can sign up for our Academic Language (including Academic Grammar and Vocabulary) course right now.  Just hit ‘Start Learning’ and begin TODAY.

Master Academic Language Skills today

Academic success is just a click away

Academic English Grammar: where can I find more resources?

Loved that content?  Looking for more?  No problem – check out the below!

2 thoughts on “First and Second Conditional Sentences”

  1. Pingback: What is Academic Vocabulary? - Headstart Academic English

  2. Pingback: The Academic Word List: IELTS, academic writing, and more

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Malcare WordPress Security