Weird Conditionals: If-Clauses That Are Always True

When you say something like "If you need help, my name is Jill," you aren't using if the way we normally think of using it. Your name is Jill no matter what. Syelle Graves explains what is going in this type of sentence.

Syelle Graves, Writing for
6-minute read
Episode #464

Conditional Modals Are Often Found in If-Clauses

The if-clause is a construction we often use to express the conditional mood. An if-clause is a subordinate clause, also called a dependent clause; that means that it is a sentence piece that only makes sense with an independent clause attached to it, either before it or after it. There are three main types of if-clauses, which are the most standardized, so we’ll go over those first. (By the way: All if-clauses can appear before or after the independent clauses they are matched up with. You can reverse the order of the clauses in any of the examples in this article, putting the independent clause first, and removing the comma.) 

The first one is often called a “future conditional,” and it is formed with the simple present tense plus the future tense, like this:

(3) If Noelle studies, she will pass her exams.

The future-tense clause makes a prediction, but it is contingent upon the possible situation in the if-clause. Neither clause can be evaluated as true or false, but both could potentially happen. 

The second type is sometimes called a “hypothetical conditional,” or “unreal conditional,” and is formed with the simple past tense plus the conditional modal construction, like this:

(4) If Noelle studied, she would pass her exams.

Neither clause can really be evaluated as true or false, as neither one is set in stone. However, hypothetically, the conditional clause would be contingent upon the if-clause to come true. We could elaborate on this idea with something like, “but she doesn’t (study), so she won’t (pass her exams).” Also notice that the if-clause implies that the opposite of what it says is true: the speaker observes Noelle’s general state of being “a non-studier.”

(One side tip about this conditional if-clause type is that, for formal writing, it is preferable to use the plural form of the verb “to be” for the past-tense part, regardless of whether the subject is plural or not, like this:

(5) If I were rich, I would buy a house.

However, in casual writing and conversation, you will see and hear many native English speakers say “If I was rich,” instead.)

The third type is called a past hypothetical conditional, and is formed with the past perfect tense—a less-frequently used tense that is also called “pluperfect”—plus the past conditional construction, like this:

(6) If Noelle had studied, she would have passed her exams.

This one we could follow up with something like, “but she didn’t (study), so she didn’t (pass her exams).” Again, neither clause is really true or false, and, it is “too late,” for that passed period of time, for either one to be fulfilled. However, the past possibility of the independent clause would have been contingent upon the if-clause.


About the Author

Syelle Graves, Writing for Grammar Girl

Syelle Graves has a master’s degree in linguistics and is the assistant director of ILETC (Institute for Language Education in Transcultural Context). You can find her at syellegraves.com.

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