Thursday, May 3, 2012

Beyond 1, 2, 3 - The conditionals that don't fit into the system


It's long been fashionable to criticise the system of teaching conditionals where we categorise them as 1st, 2nd, 3rd etc, but so far nobody seems to have come up with a better method for teaching conditionals that everyone agrees on.
One of the arguments against the 0,1,2,3 system is that there are a lot of sentences with if-clauses that can't be categorised as 1st, 2nd or 3rd Conditionals.
I think a lot of this criticism is based on a misunderstanding. The 0,1,2,3 system is not meant to be a system of analysing every conceivable if-clause, but a way to help learners form valid conditional sentences from quite an early stage in their learning.
Partly in response to this criticism, in this post I want to look at some of those types of sentence with if-clauses that don't fit in to the standard 0,1,2,3 way of looking at conditionals. I have two aims here:
  • To show that a lot of the so-called conditionals that cannot be categorised as Zero, 1st, 2nd, 3rd or Mixed Conditional are not what I would call true conditionals at all, but what I'm going to call pseudo conditionals
  • To show that there are several fairly common and easily recognisable patterns among these pseudo conditionals

Remember that a conditional statement has two clauses:

  • The if clause - also known as the condition clause
    If you need any help,
  • The main clause - also known as the result clause.
    I'll give you a hand.
  • To make things clear, I've put the if clause first in all the examples. In this case we usually separate the two clauses with a comma. But we could equally well put the result clause first. In this case we don't usually use a comma.
  • I'll give you a hand if you need any help.

Conditional types

To understand the main ideas in this post and to be able to do the first exercise, you need to know how the 0,1,2,3 system works. If you don't, click on Show how it works

What kind of conditional are these?

Exercise 1 - Look at these sentences and decide whether they are Zero, 1st, 2nd, 3rd or Mixed conditional. If you think they are none of these, select 'None'.

1. If she hadn't spoken to him that night, they probably wouldn't be married now.
2. If she's late for work again, she's going to get into trouble.
3. If you don't like seafood, why didn't you say?
4. If I hadn't seen it with my own two eyes, I'd never have believed it.
5. If that's Tim at the door, he must have forgotten his keys.
6. If that's the time already, we'd better hurry.
7. If he knew the answer, he would tell you.
8. If you buy twelve, you get a discount.
9. If you need one, there's an umbrella in that cupboard.
10. If he knows the answer, he isn't saying.

Exercise 2 - Now look at these sentences and then answer the questions below.

  • Present
  • 1. If you ask me, he's missed the bus.
  • 2. If he feels that way, why doesn't he say something?
  • 3. If you don't like fish, why are you eating this?
  • Past
  • 4. If he knew the answer, he wasn't telling anyone.
  • 5. If he died fighting, why didn't they say?
  • 6. If he was here last week, he should have come and seen us.
Yes No
1.Is there any connection between his missing the bus and asking me?
2.Does he probably feel that way?
3.Does she probably like fish?
4.Was he telling anyone if he did know the answer?
5.Did he probably die fighting?
6.Was he probably here last week?

Do these sentences express true conditions?

To my mind, none of these sentences actually express a true condition and result, whether possible (1st), unlikely (2nd) or impossible (3rd). So, I wouldn't actually think of them as true conditionals, nor would I try to fit them into the 1st, 2nd, 3rd system, which only deals with true conditionals.
In all these cases the sentences could be rewritten without using if, which wouldn't be possible if they were true conditionals.
  1. If you ask me, he's missed the bus
    His missing the bus has nothing to do with whether you ask me or not. We could equally well say, 'In my opinion, he's missed the bus.'
  2. If he feels that way, why doesn't he say something?
    We know that he does in fact feel that way, there is no real if about it. We could just as well say, 'Seeing he feels that way, why doesn't he saying something?'
  3. If you don't like fish, why are you eating this?
    I know you don't like fish. Instead of if we could use since or as - Since you don't like fish, why are you eating this?
  4. If he knew the answer, he wasn't telling anyone
    The main information that he wasn't telling anyone doesn't depend on whether he knew or not. We could write it like this - Whether or not he knew the answer, he wasn't telling anyone.
  5. If he died fighting, why didn't they say?
    This suggests that he did indeed die fighting. And we could rewrite this without if - 'Since he died fighting, why didn't they say?' or simply 'Why didn't they say he died fighting?'
  6. If he was here last week, he should have come and seen us.
    This suggests that he was here last week, so again no condition. Again we could rewrite it with since or as - As he was here last week, he should have come and seen us.
A sentence with an if-clause is NOT likely to be a true conditional:
  • if you can replace if with seeing, since or as
  • if you can replace if with whether or not
But a sentence with an if-clause is IS likely to be a true conditional:
  • if you can replace if with provided (that) or on condition that

Real and Unreal Conditionals

Nowadays, it's quite common in more advanced TEFL course books and grammars, for example Grammar and Vocabulary for CAE and CPE and Swan's Practical English Usage to divide Conditionals into Real and Unreal.
In TEFL we use these terms real and unreal to refer to tense use rather than probability; other grammars might use them in a different way. In real conditionals we use normal tenses, and in unreal conditionals, we use Unreal past tenses.

'True' and 'Pseudo' Conditionals

In what I'm calling true conditionals, our familiar Zero and 1st conditionals, the result is dependent on the condition being fufilled. But in what I'm going to call pseudo conditionals this direct relationship, for various reasons, doesn't exist.
One of my basic disagreements with the alternative systems (there are several), is that they don't usually distinguish between 'true' conditionals, those where the 'if' statement implies a real condition and result, and those that don't, what I'm calling pseudo conditionals.
As far as I can see, the vast majority, if not all, of these pseudo conditionals use normal tenses, and so I'm including them in what we're calling Real Conditonals. I'm going, therefore, to divide Real Conditionals into 'true' conditionals and 'pseudo' conditionals.
So this gives us an overall scheme to cover ALL conditionals, based on our familiar 0,1,2,3, but extending it a bit. (This is a work in progress, so may get changed a bit)

1. Real conditionals - these use normal tenses

True conditionals - the result is dependent on the condition being fulfilled

General conditions

  • Zero conditional
  • Zero in the past (see next section)

Specific occasions

  • First conditional
  • Quasi Firsts (see next section)

Pseudo conditionals - the result is not directly dependent on the condition

  • Various patterns of pseudo conditionals using normal tenses in a variety of combinations

2. Unreal conditionals - these use special tenses

True conditionals - either hypothetical or impossible

These only apply to specific occasions

  • Open - hypothetical
  • Second conditional
  • Mixed 2/3
  • Closed - impossible
  • Third conditional
  • Mixed 3/2

3. Conditionals in narratives, reported speech, future in the past etc

These use a variety of forms, which often involve tense shifting

True conditionals that don't fit

There are a few true conditionals which don't fit the conventional 0,1,2,3 pattern. Look at these sentences:
  1. If she was in London she always went to visit her aunt.
  2. If Mike managed to get the earlier train, he should be here any minute.
  3. If it doesn't rain tomorrow, why don't we all go to the beach?
The first example is about a general condition in the past, and uses past simple in both clauses, so it seems logical to think of this as Zero in the past.
The second is really like a First conditional. Although the verb is in the past simple, we don't yet know whether the condition has been fulfilled, so it is a real open condition, which could lead to the stated result. For this reason I'm calling it a Quasi (almost) First.
The third example is a different type of Quasi First. In meaning it is like a First Conditional, only the choice of tense in the main clause stops it from being one.
I hope to say more about this on separate posts about Zero and First Conditionals, but in this post I want to concentrate on different patterns of pseudo conditionals. These are some of the most common patterns I've found, but there are no doubt others. The categories are my own.

Pseudo conditionals - Pattern 1

Exercise 3 - Look at these sentences and answer the questions that follow them

Yes No
1.If Sam doesn't like jazz, he should have said so.
Does the speaker think Sam likes jazz?
Did Sam say he didn't like jazz?
2.If she didn't do her homework last night, she'll just have to do it today.
Does the speaker think she did her homework last night?
Will she have to do it today?
3.If Mark's married, why did he say he wasn't?
Does the speaker think Mark is married?
Did Mark say he wasn't?
In this type of sentence, sometimes called false conditionals, the speaker thinks that the condition has already been fulfilled (or is already true), so it is not a true condition. These can use a whole variety of standard tenses.
If here means something like 'if it is true that', or 'if it is the case that', and can be replaced by words like given, seeing, as, since.
  • Given that he doesn't like jazz, he should have said so.
  • As you didn't do your homework last night, you'll have to do it today.
  • Seeing he's married, why did he say he wasn't?

Pseudo conditionals - Pattern 2

We often use a pattern with if meaning if it's true that or if it's the case that, followed by a question, either direct or embedded.

Exercise 4 - Fill each gap with one suitable word

1. If Mike didn't do it, who earth did?
2. If I didn't leave them on the table, I where I put them.
3. If they don't choose Dave, else could get the job?.
4. If that's not the right way to do it, do you do it then?
5. If it wasn't that night at Peter's party, did they meet then?
6. If Mark's not in his office, where can he possibly ?
7. If that doesn't do the trick, I don't know what .
8. If he didn't fancy her, did he ask her out?
9. If this doesn't work, are we going to do?
10. If Mary doesn't know, who do you think I should ?

Pseudo conditionals Pattern 3

Exercise 5 - Look at these sentences and answer the questions that follow them.

Yes No
1.If your friends are hungry, there's plenty to eat in the fridge.
Is there plenty to eat in the fridge?
Does this depend on whether or not your friends are hungry?
2.If you need an umbrella, there's a spare one in that cupboard.
Is there a spare umbrella in that cupboard?
Does this depend on whether or not the other person needs one?
3.If anybody wants to see me, I'll be in my office all afternoon.
Will the speaker be in her office all afternoon?
Does this depend on whether anybody wants to see her?
We often use if-clauses when offering something, or offering to lend something. This type of conditional sentence is the opposite of Pattern 1, here it is the 'result' that is already true, regardless of whether the 'condition' is true or not.

Pseudo conditionals - Pattern 4

Exercise 6 - Look at these sentences and answer the questions that follow them.

  • If that's Tim already, he must have got an earlier train.
  • If she hasn't called, she could have lost our number.
  • If he isn't here, he can't have got my message that we were starting early.
Yes No
1.If nobody's come out of the meeting, they must be running late.
Has anybody come out of the meeting yet?
Are they probably running late?
.Are we told what will result from nobody coming out?
Could we say - The meeting is running late, so nobody's come out yet?
2.If she hasn't called, she could have lost our number.
Has she called?
Has she possibly lost our number?
Are we told what will result from her not calling?
Could we say - She lost our number, so she didn't call?
3.If he isn't here, he can't have got my message that we were starting early.
Is he here?
Is it probable that he got my message?
Are we told what will result from his not being here?
Could we say - He can't have got my message, so he didn't know to come earlier?
We often use if-clauses to speculate and make deductions. But the result leads to the condition, not the other way around. So again, this can't be a true conditional.

Pseudo conditionals - Pattern 5

Exercise 7 - Look at these sentences and answer the questions that follow them.

1.If we're going to get this project finished on time, we're all going to have to do overtime.
Which needs to be completed for the other to come true?
- Getting the project finished on time
- Everybody doing overtime
2.If you want to catch your train, you'll need to leave now.
Which needs to be completed for the other to come true?
- You leaving
- You catching the train
3.If I'm to get this essay done, I'll have to forget about going to the pub tonight.
Which needs to be completed for the other to come true?
- Me getting this essay done
- Me not going to the pub
I think of these as 'reverse conditionals': the result clause must be true before we can fulfill the condition.

Seeing the difference

  • If you're hungry, we'll eat early. (First Conditional)
  • If you're hungry, you should have said. (Pseudo 1)
  • If she didn't eat the cakes, who did?. (Pseudo 2)
  • If you're hungry, there's a pork pie in the fridge. (Pseudo 3)
  • If you're hungry, you must have missed lunch. (Pseudo 4)
  • If you don't want to be hungry later, you'd better eat something now. (Pseudo 5)

If you thought that, you thought wrong

We often use a pattern where the main clause is a comment on somebody's behaviour or opinions, expressed in the if-clause. We use it when we think they are wrong or when their behaviour annoys us. This pattern is used especially with these verbs:

think, expect, believe, reckon, suppose, imagine

Here are a couple of exercises to help you understand this pattern, involving some idiomatic expressions and phrasal verbs.

Click and drop Mouse over the relevant button for instructions.

First let's look at some of those idiomatic expressions.

Ex 8 Match the idioms with their definitions.

1. pull the other one (it's got bells on)!
2. waltz in/off, etc
3. fall for (something)
4. sail through (something)
5. bark up the wrong tree
6. have a dirty mind
waltz   ·   sail   ·   just   ·   believe   ·   treat   ·   what
that   ·   give   ·   tidying   ·   falling

Ex 9a Fill the gaps using the words in the box above.

Ex 9b Match the endings below to the beginnings above.

ex 1ex 2
1. If you think I'm up after you,
2. If she imagines she can just this house like a hotel,
3. If he supposes he can in here without so much as a phone call,
4. If you think I'm for that old trick,
5. If they are reckoning we'll just up without a fight,
6. If you expect me to that,
7. If 's what they're thinking is the problem,
8. If he reckoned he could through university without studying,
9. If she believes we'll give her everything she asks for,
10. If you're thinking I'm thinking,
a)pull the other one!
b)you've got another think coming.
c)he supposes wrong.
d)you'd expect me to believe anything.
e)she's even sillier than we thought.
f)then he made a big mistake.
g)they've miscalculated.
h)they're barking up the wrong tree.
i)you've got a dirtier mind than I thought.
j)then she's quite mistaken.

Final word - conditionals in the past

Remember when reading or writing narratives that we can use both true and pseudo conditionals, but often shift them back a tense. So we could have, for example:
  • If he was in town he always went to visit his aunt. (Zero Conditional in the past)
  • If she was ready, they could go. (1st Conditional in the past)
I hope to be saying more about this in a future post.

Looking at conditionals in a different way

This one of a set of posts I hope to do looking at conditionals from a slightly different angle than usual. I'm hoping to cover:
  • Beyond 1,2,3 - The conditionals that don't fit.
  • Zero Conditional - there's more to it than water boiling at 100°C
  • First and Second Conditionals - can we extend them?
  • Conditionals in the past - 3rd Conditional, and conditionals in narratives, reported speech and future in the past.

Final final word

If you can think of any other patterns that non-true conditionals follow, please tell me in the comments. I'm making a collection.


Trang Minh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Trang Minh said...

Dear Warsaw Will,
Thank you very much for sharing such an interesting and useful idea about pseudo conditionals. I find it helpful. I'm Vietnamese and I'm studying a research on conditionals as a hedging devices which is related to pseudo conditionals. If you have time, Would you mind suggesting me some English books or films including pseudo-conditionals? I've read The little Prince; however, it contains mainly true conditionals.
Best regards,
Minh Trang

Warsaw Will said...

Hi, thanks for the comment and good luck with your project. I'm afraid I don't really know any specific books or films where you could find examples of these non-true conditionals (pseudo is what I call them - it's not an official term).

As you mentioned 'The Little Prince' I assume you have looked at my post on that. There are a few I would describe as pseudo:

'If I try to describe him here, it is to make sure that I shall not forget him.'

'If you succeed in judging yourself rightly, then you are indeed a man of true wisdom.'

There are a couple of lines in Beyoncé's 'If I were a boy':

'If you thought I would wait for you, you thought wrong'

I wrote about this type of conditional in another post:

I think Google would be your best bet here. I expect you've tried googling 'Conditionals as hedging devices'. There seems to be quite a lot of academic stuff about it.

If anyone else has any examples, please let me know.

Trang Minh said...

Thank you very much for your generous support. I really appriciate that.
Best regards,
Minh Trang