notes If I had a hammer, I'd hammer in the morning,
I'd hammer in the evening, all over this land.
I'd hammer out danger, I'd hammer out warning,
I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters
Oh, oh, all over this land.

If I had a bell, I'd ring it in the morning,
I'd ring it in the evening, all over this land.
I'd ring out danger, I'd ring out warning,
I'd ring out love between my brothers and my sisters
Oh, oh, all over this land.

So go the first two stanzas of Lee Hays and Pete Seeger's folk tune, "If I had a hammer," one of the most famous tunes and lyrics in the history of American song. The grammar of the lyrics uses what is called the conditional. The writer expresses an action or an idea (hammering out danger and warning and love) that is dependent on a condition, on something that is only imagined (having a hammer or a bell — or, in the next stanza, a song). In this situation, the lyricist imagines what he would do if he "had a hammer" — now, in the present. He might also have imagined what he would have done if he "had had a hammer," in the past, prior to something else happening:

The conditional is possible also in the future tense:

And, finally, he could imagine what is called the habitual present conditional:

The Factual versus the Unreal or Hypothetical

for yet another explanation of the conditional in English.

In expressing a conditional situation, we must be able to distinguish between what is a factual statement and what is a hypothetical statement. (Other terms for hypothetical could be unreal, imagined, wished for, only possible, etc.) For instance, if we say

that's a simple statement of present habitual fact. A general truth is expressed in the same way:

Statements of habitual fact can also be made in the past:

And conditional or hypothetical statements can be made about the future:

(In the future, we could combine the base form of the verb ("give," in this case) with other modal verbs: may, might, could.)


When we express the hypothetical in English in the present tense, we end up using the past tense in an interesting way.

(Instead of could, we could have used would or might in that sentence.) The speaker of that sentence is not talking about something in the past tense, even though he uses the past tense "liked." The speaker implies, in fact, that you don't like to play tennis (in the present), so there's no point, now, in going to the new tennis courts.


When we use the hypothetical in this conditional mode, we accommodate our need to speculate on how things could have been different, how we wish things were different, how we imagine that things could be different in the future, etc. In order to express the unreal, the hypothetical, the speculative, or imagined (all those being the same in this case), English has adopted an interesting habit of moving time one step backward. Two verbs are involved: one in the clause stating the condition (the "if" clause) and one in the result clause. Watch how the verbs change.

If the hypothetical result is in the future, we put the verb in the condition clause one step back — into the present:

For present unreal events, we put the verb in the condition clause one step back — into the past:

Note that wishing is always an unreal condition. Note, too, that the verb to be uses the form were in an unreal condition. More about this in a moment.

For past unreal events — things that didn't happen, but we can imagine — we put the verb in the condition clause a further step back — into the past perfect:

In this last sentence, note the conditional clause in the past perfect (had known) and the result clause that uses the conditional modal + have + the past participle of the main verb (would have baked).

Some writers seem to think that the subjunctive mood is disappearing from English, but that's probably not true. We use the subjunctive all the time to accommodate this human urge to express possibility, the hypothetical, the imagined. (You can review the Verbs and Verbals section for further help understanding the Subjunctive Mood.) Frequently, conditional expressions require that we use were where we would otherwise have used another form of to be. The switch to were is not the only manifestation of the subjunctive in expressing the conditional, but it is the most common.

Using Would and Could

When expressing the unreal, the result clauses need would, could or will. The condition clauses do not use those verbs; the condition clauses, instead, use verbs moved one step back in time from the result (as we will see in the tables below).

Future Conditionals versus Hypothetical Conditionals

When we want to predict something conditional about the future (what we think might happen), we can use the present tense in the if clause and will or be going + the base form of the verb in the result clause.

On the other hand, the hypothetical conditional allows us to express quite unlikely situations or situations that are downright impossible.

Other Forms of Conditional Statements

The conditional can also be signaled by means of a subject-verb inversion. This inversion replaces the word "if"; it is inappropriate to use both the word "if" and the subject-verb inversion in the same sentence.

Various Tenses in the Conditional

The following tables divide the uses of the conditional into three types, according to the time expressed in the if clause: (1) true in the present or future or possibly true in the future; (2) untrue or contrary to fact in the present; or (3) untrue or contrary to fact in the past. Notice the one step backward in time in the condition clause.

True in the Present
If clauseIndependent clause
True as habit or fact
If + subject + present tensesubject + present tense
If Judita works hard,she gets good grades.
True as one-time future event
If + subject + present tensesubject + future tense
If Judita hands in her paper early tomorrow,she'll probably get an A.
Possibly true in the future
If + subject + present tensesubject + modal + base form
If Judita hands in her paper early tomorrow,she may/might/could/should get an A.

Untrue in the Present
If clauseIndependent clause
If + subject + past tensesubject + would/could/might + simple form of verb
If Judita worked this hard in all her courses,she would/could/might get on the Dean's List.
If + subject + to be verbsubject + would/could/might + simple form of verb
If Judita were president of her class,she could work to reform the grading policy.

Untrue in the Past
If clauseIndependent clause
If + subject + past perfect tensesubject + modal + have + past participle
If Judita had worked this hard in all her courses,she would not have failed this semester.


Quiz on Conditional Verb Forms


The examples above are our own. The patterns and analysis are modelled on the following authorities:

Evelyn Farbman, Professor of English at Capital Community College and author of Sentence Sense: A Writer's Guide.

The Longman Handbook for Writers and Readers by Chris M. Anson and Robert A. Schwegler. Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.: New York. 1997. Used with permission.

Grammar Dimensions: Form, Meaning, and Use 2nd Ed. by Jan Frodesen and Janet Eyring. Heinle & Heinle: Boston. 1997.