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Without meaningful practice and with little time I keep forgetting the conditionals, but it came to my mind after reflecting on the way I learn English that it would be a great idea if I could memorize preferably some well-known proverbs and maybe some great quotes for each grammar point in general and for each English conditional structure in particular.

So instead of memorizing abstract rules we memorize real language. This way the example becomes the rule from which we can generalize.

What I would like is to get a proverb (or more) for each conditional, starting from the zero conditional to the mixed conditionals. Could you share your knowledge?

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    If you abandon the Three (or Four, or Five, or whatever random number you've been taught) Conditionals you've got a much better chance of learning how conditionals are actually used. – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 1 '13 at 5:09
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    Another idea that might be closer to your idea is to use great quotes, but from high-impact people, such as politicians. A quick search landed me at obamaspeeches.com/…. If you search the word "if" in that page, you will find examples of all Conditional Type I, II, and III. – Damkerng T. Dec 1 '13 at 12:45
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    I agree with @StoneyB completely. To be honest, I personally couldn't tell you which one is which, but I could show you how to use all of them. Conditionals follow pretty regular and predictable patterns, so it's not really hard if you don't try to make each correspond with a number. They're one of the more regular aspects of English grammar (hint: look for words/phrases like if I, should you, were he, had they, we would have, etc.) – Giambattista Dec 1 '13 at 19:45
  • Thank you all for the constructive comments. I have learned English so far without formal grammar, but now I am trying out everything that comes to my mind to see what works better. – learner Dec 1 '13 at 22:05
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I usually don't like to split my answer into two under the same question, but I believe this is a good exception.

To give you some quotes from a movie I like. Here are some parts of Prometheus (2012), which I especially like (no matter what others said about it), enough that I can see these scenes immediately and vividly just by reading these quoes. Also, they can help pointing out why Conditional I, II, and III, while being useful, are insufficient.

Meredith Vickers: Take us home!
Elizabeth Shaw: If we don't stop it, there won't be any home to go back to!

This is a good example of Condition Type I (or, according to PEU1 257.2, present tense with future meaning).

Peter Weyland: [as a holographic recording]
Hello, friends. My name is Peter Weyland. I am your employer. I am recording this, 22 June, 2091. And if you're watching it, you have reached your destination. And I am long dead. May I rest in peace.

This structure of "if you're ..., you have reached ..." is a good example of something not Conditional I, II, or III. When I heard it, it was almost as if he should said "..., you would have reached ...", but he didn't. He simply said "..., you have reached ...".

Charlie Holloway: David, why are you wearing a suit, man?
David: I beg your pardon?
Charlie Holloway: You don't breathe, remember? So why wear a suit?
David: I was designed like this because you are more comfortable interacting with your own kind. If I didn't wear a suit, it would defeat the purpose.

This is a good example of Condition Type II (or, according to PEU 258.2, if + past; would + infinitive without to).

Janek: You know, if you wanna get laid, you really don't have to pretend to be interested in the pyramid scan. I mean, you could just say, "Hey, I'm trying to get laid." Heh.
Meredith Vickers: I could. I could say that, right? But then it wouldn't make sense why I would fly myself half a billion miles from every man on Earth if I wanted to get laid, would it?
Janek: Hey, uh, Vickers. Hey, Vickers. I was wondering... Are you a robot?
Meredith Vickers: [scoffs] My room. Ten minutes.

Another good example of something not Conditional I, II, or III. According to PEU 247.1, this "if you wanna ..., you (really) don't have to ...," is categorized as "the same tenses as with other conjunctions".

Elizabeth Shaw: Right. All you do is fly the ship.
Janek: That's right.
Elizabeth Shaw: But you must care about something, captain. If you didn't, why are you here?

Another good example of something not Conditional I, II, or III. I am not even sure which item in PEU it would fall into. Perhaps 262.4, mixed tense: "Sometimes a simple past tense is used with if where a past perfect would be normal. This is more common is American English."

1. PEU = Michael Swan's, Practical English Usage.

  • Thank you for the answers. I thought about movie quotes but then I thought proverbs were better because they are well known and you can use them when discussing grammar points with other people till I read @snailboat 's enlightening comment. And, yes it seems we share some similar learning methods, though I am relatively far behind in English! – learner Dec 1 '13 at 22:11
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    @learner, I think you're underestimating yourself! As I understand, our skills are on par with each other. I am quite sure that you could be even better than me in some respects. Let's keep learning and help each other out! – Damkerng T. Dec 2 '13 at 4:09
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Your question hints how close your English learning method is to mine. Just like you, I too found it next to useless trying to remember those rules by rote, or, in your own words, "memorizing abstract rules". Especially when a venerable grammar book such as Practical English Grammar, by Michael Swan (which is the first book I came across that I found it makes sense the most) says under 256.3 'first', 'second' and 'third' conditionals; other structures,

"These are useful structures to practice. However, students sometimes think that these are the only possibilities, and become confused when they meet sentences like If she didn't phone this morning, then she's probably away ("What's this? A fourth conditional?"). It is important to realise that if is not only used in special structures with will and would; it can also be used, like other conjunctions, in ordinary structures with normal verb forms."

It was as if he could read my mind.

It is rather coincidental, that we both want to perfect (or at least improve) our usage of these conditionals around the same time. (I just bought Practical English Grammar app and set out to fix my grammar flaws.)

I completely agree with you that memorizing real language is far better than memorizing abstract rules. I think you are looking for prototypes of those conditionals. (I myself prefer the term exemplar than prototype, but prototype is a more common word.) In your case, you seem to prefer proverbs and great quotes. I myself personally preferred "movie quotes", as they allowed me to lend my emotion attached to it. It works quite well, considering that I can use it correctly about 80%-90% of the time. But I want to push it up a bit, which is why I have been looking for something better since last week.

Seeing that you are looking for something similar as well, I would like to share what I think I found.

It is actually quite simple. Here is how,


Open your grammar book, for each conditional case, read its examples. Make sure that you understand the examples precisely. Then, imagine some similar usages in your first language. Something you can get emotional attached is much preferred. Translate each of them back to English. See if it works. If you still doubt it, ask someone to help you out. (You can always post it as a question here at ELL.)


This method works much better for me, because they are my own words. I hope that it will work well for you as well.

Sincerely yours,
Damkerng T.

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    Many proverbs have fossilized or idiomatic grammar that is no longer productive in modern English. This makes movie quotes a better choice, as they tend to be closer to English as it's spoken today. – snailcar Dec 1 '13 at 7:40

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