Conditional Tenses: The Often-Forgotten Structures

Conditional tenses don’t typically get as much attention as other tense patters in English language teaching (ELT). Twelve tense patterns are typically taught: four for past, four for present and four for future.

These twelve “tense” structures are all combinations of the same basic parts:

  • present form or past form
  • “have -en” or not
  • “be -ing” or not
  • “will” or not (or would, can/could, shall/should, may/might or must)

When we calculate the possible combinations of these, we actually get sixteen sentence patterns. These four extra sentence patterns are common in English, and many grammarians refer to them as conditional tenses.

(2 x 2 x 2 x 2 = 16)

And these four extra structures are used more often than some of the traditional “future tenses”!

What Are Conditional Tenses?

Traditional future tenses use will, conditional tenses use the past form of will: would.

The past form of “have done” (present perfect) is “had done” (past perfect), the past form of “is doing” (present progressive) is “was doing” (past progressive). So it makes sense to look at will in the same way, the past form of “will have done” (future perfect) is “would have done” (conditional perfect).

Why do the past tenses of be and have get included as separate structures but not those with will? The traditional idea has been to describe past, present and future tenses. But is this the best approach for learners when the world’s leading linguists say that English doesn’t even have a future tense?

Looking at the difference in meaning between “will have done” and “would have done” helps us better understand the meaning that will/would adds to a sentence, and how choosing the present form or past form changes the meaning of a sentence.

Table: English sentence structures – past tense and present tense
Past (the first verb is in
the past form)
Examples Present (the first verb is in
the present form)
Examples
Past simple I went to the park. Present simple I go to the park on Fridays.
Past continuous / progressive I was playing the guitar. Present continuous / progressive I’m playing the guitar.
Past perfect I had finished my homework. Present perfect I have finished my homework.
Past perfect continuous / progressive I had been reading a book. Present perfect continuous / progressive I have been reading a book.
Conditional simple with would I would have a beer, but I have to work. Future simple with will I’ll have a beer.
Conditional continuous / progressive with would I thought they would be playing at the park. Future continuous / progressive with will They’ll be playing soccer in the park today.
Conditional perfect with would If she wasn’t sick, she would have finished her homework. Future perfect with will She will have finished her homework too.
Conditional perfect continuous / progressive with would They would have been working hard all day if it wasn’t raining. Future perfect continuous / progressive with will They will have been working hard all day.

 

How Useful Are Conditional Tenses?

Here is some data from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA):

  • Will (1540841) and would (1534825) are both very common.1
  • Would have -en (88481) is 18 times more common than will have -en (4689).2
  • Will be doing is 1.7 times more common than would be doing.
  • Would have been -ing (757) is 28 times more common than will have been -ing (27)

In total, the “future continuous”, the “future perfect” and the “future perfect continuous” are far less common than the past tense forms with would. So it is strange that the sentences with would aren’t typically taught in as much detail as the traditional “twelve tenses”.

1Includes will, ‘ll, wo[n’t], would, ‘d and would[n’t].
2-en includes all past participle forms (corpus query: _v?n*)

will and would - future tenses vs conditional tenses - future progressive / conditional progressive, future perfect / conditional perfect, future perfect progressive / conditional perfect progressive

Other verbs can be used in these structures too

Consider the “future perfect tense” (will have done). It isn’t very common.

Other verbs are more common in this pattern (modal verb + have + past participle). It is much more useful to be familiar with the chunks “would have done”, “could have done”, “may have done”, “might have done” or “must have done”.

future perfect pattern modal verbs - (verb) have -en (would have done) etc.

Although “the future progressive” (will be doing) is very common, presenting it as its own isolated structure is a limited view that only accounts for about 37% of the uses of this pattern. (modal verb + be + present participle). “Would be doing”, “may be doing” and “should be doing” are also very useful expressions.

future progressive pattern: modal verbs (will be doing) etc.

These other verbs can be used in the same way as will

Many books say that shall can also be used to talk about the future (although many think of this as old-fashioned). We can also use other words in the same way too: can, may and must – depending on what we want to communicate.

I will go to the party tomorrow.
I shall go to the party tomorrow.
I can go to the party tomorrow.
I may go to the party tomorrow.
I must go to the party tomorrow.

The past forms can also be used for imaginary situations.

I would go to the party tomorrow, but I have to work.
I should go to the party tomorrow.
I don’t have any plans tomorrow, I could go to the party…
I might go to the party tomorrow.
(Also: I’d better go to the party tomorrow.)

Conclusion

Rather than focusing so heavily on will for the “future simple”, “future continuous”, “future progressive” and “future perfect progressive”, looking at how other words can also fill this position in a sentence gives us a clearer sense of its meaning.

Thinking about the difference between will/would and the meanings these words add helps us get a better overall view of English as a logical system of communication.