conditional structures

Conditional structures: Callan rules!

There’s a common misconception about two common conditional structures English language learners come across at A2/B1 level, and I think it warrants a short blog. In the Callan Method, we introduce these structures at the end of Stage 4 of the General English course:

1st conditional:                “If” + present + future (e.g. “will …”)

2nd conditional:              “If” + past + conditional (e.g. “would …”)

So, what’s the issue? Well, a quick search for “1st and 2nd conditional” in a browser brings up results like this:

“The 1st conditional is used to talk about possibilities in the present or in the future.

The 2nd conditional expresses unreal situations in the present or future.”


So, for example:

1st:       If I jog regularly, I will feel healthier.


2nd:     If I grew wings, I would be able to fly.


Those sentences are perfectly fine, so the rule appears to be pretty sound. But it’s not. It’s misleading. It’s a ‘bad’ rule, because it leads many learners (and a fair few teachers!) to believe that the difference in usage is all about whether events are possible or impossible, common or rare, real or unreal etc. And that is not the case.

Here are two other sentences:

1st:      If I grow wings, I will be able to fly.

2nd:     If I went jogging regularly, I would feel healthier.

Are these examples of good, correct English? Of course they are. A person who says “If I grow wings, I will be able to fly” is just feeling optimistic about their chances of growing wings and is letting us know how great their life will be once they’ve sprouted! We can certainly agree that they’re deluded, but that’s irrelevant. Let’s just add a few words to flesh out their thinking:

“If I grow wings, I will be able to fly, and if you hold my hand, you’ll be able to fly too. Trust me; I saw it in a film!”

And the person who says “If I jogged regularly, I would feel healthier” is perhaps aware of the benefits of physical exercise, but unwilling to make the commitment. Let’s just add a few words to their sentence:

“I know that if I jogged regularly, I would feel healthier, but that’s not going to happen any time soon!”

So, the choice to use either the 1st or 2nd conditional doesn’t pivot around notions of possible vs impossible events, common vs rare occurrences, or real vs unreal situations. What it depends on, entirely, is the speaker’s perception of probability. If you think there is a real possibility that something will happen, you use the 1st conditional to communicate that idea. If you think an event is very improbable or completely impossible, you use the 2nd conditional to communicate that idea.

And that’s the rule we give learners at the end of Stage 4 of the Callan Method General English course. It’s a useful and helpful rule. It’s a good rule. 😊

And just to nail the concept home:

If I win the lottery, I’ll give you half the money.           (a generous optimist)

If I won the lottery, I’d give you half the money.          (a generous realist*)

*   The odds of winning the jackpot in the UK Lotto are around 14 million to one.


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