Published 16th November 2018

Mixed conditional

Unfortunately for language learners, learning about grammar and how to use grammar is part and parcel of learning a language. While some may argue it is not as important as learning vocabulary, it is certainly necessary to have a handle on the grammar of a language in order to be able to communicate effectively in that language. After all, while individual words can communicate meaning, without grammar they cannot convey anything more than basic ideas and needs. We need grammar to really be able to express ourselves. With English, as with many languages, there is a lot of grammar to learn. As a teacher of English as a Foreign Language, if you were asked which the most confusing grammar point for your students is, what would you say? Present perfectPhrasal verbsAdverbials? The list could go on! But what about mixed conditionals?

Conditional sentences can be quite problematic for English language learners, and sometimes even for teachers. So before we get into this let’s make sure we know what we’re talking about. 

What is a conditional?

A conditional sentence is a sentence which is used to talk about a hypothetical situation in the past, present or future. In other words, conditionals are used to speculate about what could have been, what might be now, or what could be in the future. Generally speaking, conditional sentences use if, though they can use unless in its place if it’s a negative sentence. Conditional sentences include a condition (or if-clause) and a main clause.  

There are five kinds of conditionals in English: zero, first, second, third and mixed. Each conditional utilises a different tense to refer to a different degree of hypothetical situation in a different time period. That’s quite a mouthful but it’ll make sense soon, we promise.

A mixed conditional activity

The zero conditional

The zero conditional refers to the present, in that it refers to a general truth or fact; something that will always be true. It uses the simple present tense. 

For example, If you heat water to 100 degrees, it boils. 

This is a fact and it will always be true so we use the zero conditional. 

The first conditional

The first conditional refers to a situation in the present or future which is real, probable or likely. It uses the present tense in the if-clause and will in the result clause

For example, If you don’t take a jacket, you’ll get cold. 

This is a likely situation. There is a chance it won’t happen but it is a pretty solid prediction. The first conditional is often used to convey promises or threats. 

The second conditional

The second conditional refers to a situation in the present or future which is hypothetical or improbable. It uses the simple past tense in the if-clause and would in the result clause. 

For example, If you were a bit taller, you would be able to reach the shelf. 

This situation is an impossible situation so a second conditional is used. 

The third conditional

The third conditional refers to a situation in the past. Because it is referring to the past, it is a hypothetical situation. It uses the past perfect in the if-clause and would have in the result clause. 

For example, I would have told her if I had seen her. 

This is a past situation which obviously cannot be changed. The third conditional is often used to express regrets. 

Read more: What is a Conditional Sentence?

In order to get a handle on conditionals, learners need to be exposed to them, understand their construction and purpose, and practise them. Though they might seem impossible at first, once you understand them they make sense. 

But then there are the mixed conditionals.

Conditionals themselves are tricky little monsters but when we bring in the added dimension of mixing them, you can usually see your students’ minds imploding. Of course, learning about mixed conditionals and how to use them needn’t be so challenging but many students find themselves getting in a muddle with them. It’s our duty to show our students how much fun mixed conditionals can be, while still making sure they understand and know how to use them appropriately and effectively.

What is a mixed conditional?

What is a mixed conditional? A mixed conditional is when the two parts of a conditional sentence refer to two different time periods. For example, it could be describing a present result from a past condition

If I had studied Medicine, I would be a doctor.

or a past condition of a present result

If I didn’t trust him I wouldn’t have told him.

As you can imagine, this jump in time can be rather confusing for our students. Considering that practice is key to getting to grips with conditionals, we need a lot of activities up our sleeves to help our students as much as possible. However, when you get into it, dealing with mixed conditionals can be really fun. Activities used to teach mixed conditionals are creative and imaginative and, as a result, interesting.

A mixed conditional activity

Here is a great activity you can try the next time you are teaching mixed conditionals.

Hand out papers to the students. Each paper must be divided into two, clearly labelled past and present/future. Each student or pair of students must be given two counters of some sort – two coins, two animal toys, two game pieces, anything. Each piece must be designated as either the if or the result clause.

Ask your students to create conditional sentences or, alternatively, you can create a situation which lends itself to conditional sentences. As your students make up the sentences, they must put their counters on the appropriate time frame that they wish to communicate.

For example, they could come up with sentences like:

If I hadn’t overslept, I wouldn’t be in such a hurry.

In this case they would put the if counter on the past section of the paper and the result clause on the present section of the paper. Doing this will make your students think carefully about what they want to say before they say it. If necessary, you can write up the grammar for each section to remind them of the structure of the sentence.

Bear in mind, your students are doing this from the standpoint of the meaning of the sentence, not the grammar. The divided pieces of paper are there to focus your students on the correct grammar and help you the teacher and the other students ensure they are using the correct grammar.

It may sound a little confusing at first but once your students get the hang of it they should find creating mixed conditional sentences much easier.