If you read this article, it may help you.

One of the pleasures of teaching private students is helping them negotiate the mindfield of school exams. I was doing so with one fourteen year old last week. Part of the language she had to revise were the first and second conditionals.

Learners in my experience find these structures grammatically challenging, which they are, due to the amount of gramatical processing involved. However, in my opinion they shouldn’t find the meaning as difficult to grasp as it is similar to Portuguese. But some do, and I put this down to the way that these two conditionals are taught in both classrooms and in coursebooks.

My student and I turned to the grammar summary which accompanied the coursebook she was using. We found the explanation for the meaning of the first conditional.

We are talking about the future. We are thinking about a particular condition or situation in the future, and the result of this condition. There is a real possibility that this condition will happen.

This explanation is correct up to a point, but can be misleading and lead to confusion, especially when students come up against the second and third conditionals, and the use of ‘may’ and ‘might’ in conditional sentences.

For the meaning of ‘will’ in the main clause is more than just marking the future outcome of the conditional clause.

There are two types of meanings for modal verbs: intrinsic, and extrinsic. Iintrinsic meanings refer to the control of actions and events by human and other agents. These meanings are personal permission, obligation and volition or intension. Extrinsic meanings refer to the logical status of states or events. These refer to levels of certainty, likelihood or logical necessity.

So, the sentence, ‘if it rains tomorow, I will go to the beach’ implies some degree of certainty about a future event, whether that be in terms of my own volition or my perception of the likelihood of that event ocurring.

This can be compared with, ‘if it rains tomorrow, I might \ may go to the beach’, where my volition and the likelihood of it ocurring is less certain.

In my experience, some students get over concerned about the difference in the degree of certainty between ‘may’ and ‘might’. I have even heard a teacher describe the difference as the ‘55% and 45%’ possibility of something happening. I usually tell them not to worry about it.

I believe that identifying ‘will’ as certainty helps clarify the meaning of the first conditional for students. Especially when you compare it with ‘may’ and ‘might’ from the off.

By doing so, it also helps students when it comes to clarifying the meaning of the second and third conditionals.

I have heard some teachers describe the ‘would’ in the second conditional as the future in the past or the past tense of ‘will’, and the ‘would have been’ in the third conditional as the past. All of which can result in more confusion rather than clarification.

Having learnt ‘will’ to mean certainty and ‘may\might’ to mean a degree of possibility, it shouldn’t be so difficult to apply these same meanings to the second and third conditionals.




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Dominic Walters

I am CELTA and DELTA qualified and have an MA in Educational Psychology. I have been teaching English since 1991, working in Brazil, Republic of Ireland, Spain, Portugual, Egypt and the UK. I am a DELTA, ICELT, CELTA, FTBE assessor and tutor as well as a CELTA online course tutor. I am also an examiner for the Cambridge, IELTS, Trinity exams.

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