In this lesson on Wednesdays with EWAT, I went over the four English conditional tenses focusing in particular on how they are used in a business context.

The topic was prompted by a number of readers asking me to clarify what can often be a confusing set of tenses.
I decided, therefore, to raise this grammar topic in my lesson and have summarised it in this post.

What are the conditional tenses in English?

The conditional tenses are those that start with an “if clause”. They start with a condition and finish with a consequence/result.

Compare these sentences.

  • If sales increase (generally), we make a profit. (Zero)
  • If sales increase (next quarter), we‘ll make a profit. (First)
  • If sales increased (next quarter), we would make a profit. (Second)
  • If sales had increased (last quarter), we would have made a profit. (Third)

The If clause sets the condition (sales increase) and the second 
clause sets the result (profit)

There are 4 English conditional tenses.



When we talk about things that are always or generally true, we use the zero conditional. In other words, we’re looking at logical conclusions or results of our actions. 

Structure: If/when + present tense, present tense

  • if/when we sell more, we make a profit.
  • if/when we receive more orders, we employ more staff.
  • if /when interest rates rise, our borrowing costs more.
  • if/when there’s a rail strike, I am always late for work.


It’s a fact.


When we talk about future events that will happen or has a real possibility of happening we use the first conditional.

We often use this in business when we’re projecting the future. Imagine in a meeting, you’re making plans and making certain assumptions about the result of the actions you make or take as a business.

You’re forecasting.

Structure: If/when + present, future

  • if our clients sign the contract this afternoon, we’ll give the go-ahead for the press release.
  • If the product is successful in China, we will introduce it into other Asian markets”
  • if the other side agrees to our terms, it’ll place us in a much stronger position further up the line of the negotiations.
  • If he agrees to all we’ve asked for, I’ll be stunned.

We also use the first conditional for situations where the possibility of something happening is NOT high. Often when it’s ironic.

“If Simon manages to get this deal by the end of today, I’ll treat the entire team to a five-course dinner at  Chez Gavroche! (The chances of Simon getting the deal are very small, so no danger of you spending a small fortune at Chez Gavroche!)”




With this tense, we refer to future events that are unlikely to happen or impossible. We also call this the “imaginary future”. We use this tense to imagine and dream of a future that’s different to our present.


Structure: If  + past simple, would/could/might + verb (infinitive)

“What changes would you make to the way you work?”
You could start with any of these sentences:
  • If it was/were up to me, I’d create more open plan spaces.
  • If I had more time, I’d …………..
  • If money wasn’t an option, I’d………..
  • If markets weren’t so volatile, we’d invest more.
  • If I had to choose, I’d………..
  • If cash flow wasn’t so tight, I’d invest more in the business.


We use this tense for our dreams, for the changes we want to make in our business, our professional lives. 




When we talk about past events that are different from what really happened we used the third conditional. This is also known as the imaginary past. This is often used to express regret and sometimes criticism.

Structure: If + past perfect, would + have + past participle

  • if you had informed the client of the delay in time, he wouldn’t have cancelled the order. (but you didn’t so he cancelled it)
  • We wouldn’t have made that decision if we had known about the software problems.  (Reality: we didn’t know about the problems so made the decision)


  • If I had done an MBA, I would have had more opportunities in my career.” (Reality: I didn’t do the MBA so I’ve had fewer opportunities)


  • If you hadn’t taken so long making a decision, we could have bid for the contract. (criticism)


The above examples are about two actions in the past. If the result clause is in the present, we use would + infinitive:

The action you took in the past has a result that affects your present.


  • If I had done an MBA, I would be on a higher salary now”.
  • If you hadn’t messed up the negotiations, we would be making a profit by now.
  • If he had only accepted the position of senior partner, he wouldn’t be begging to keep his job now.


Practice Worksheet

I’ve prepared a practice worksheet for you.

If you’d like a copy simply sign up for my newsletter (see below), email me with Conditionals Worksheet in the subject line, and I’ll send you the worksheet.