Today, I came across the following two sentences on CNN's website, which immediately attracted my attention as they are totally clash with what english teachers teach.

  1. ".....I feel like if we didn't get justice then those girls won't get justice either," the man said."

You see it. The sentence structure completely clashes with all the conditional types. There is no such conditional: (If+simple past, the main clause is simple future). We are taught that in conditional 2, the main clause should have "would, could, or might". But this sentence does not have it, the sentence neither matches Conditional 2, nor 2 nor 3.

  1. "If, at that time, they had found the killers after what had happened to those girls -- if there had been a proper investigation -- then maybe we wouldn't have to see what's happening right now," he said."

Same here. It is conditional 3, because it is about an unreal past, which sould be "If+past perfect, the main clause should be "would have v3" or "could have v3" or "might have v3". But this sentence has none of them, either.

You see, these examples are out there in real life. And they are used by best native speakers such as CNN text authors. If we had written such a sentence in the english lessons, we would have failed the exam. But you see, how they are commonly and naturally used in real native English.

Anyway, what conditional types are these two sentences? or are they really conditionals at all or are they bad english, or are they what?

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    You attribute these grammatical oddities to CNN, but they were quoted from speaking sources. People speak ungrammatically all the time, even at native fluency level.
    – Beanluc
    Jan 24, 2018 at 19:08
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    A descriptive grammar text is just a description of the structure of a language, which is defined by its usage. So in that sense any way that people speak habitually and deliberately in order to be understood is by definition grammatical. Ungrammatical utterances are those with a structure that we observe to be systematically avoided.
    – bdsl
    Jan 24, 2018 at 21:42
  • Grammar doesn't describe spoken language. This question really doesn't make much sense.
    – user428517
    Jan 25, 2018 at 1:00
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    @sgroves: If by "Grammar doesn't describe spoken language" you mean "oversimplified prescriptivist rules don't perfectly match informal spoken English", fine, but otherwise that is dead wrong. Spoken English grammar is very similar to written grammar, accounting for the various intentional and unintentional departures for informal effect or while changing what is about to be said. Jan 25, 2018 at 15:57

2 Answers 2


The only general rule for conditionals is that the condition and consequence clauses must have the same degree of "reality", which may be expressed in the verbform or with a modal verb. Note, however, that the degree of "reality" expressed by a particular verbform or modal is a function of context, not the verb itself; it would perhaps be more accurate to speak of the verb "agreeing" with the reality rather than "expressing" it.

  • The first sentence is an inference conditional: If P, then Q = "If fact P is true we may infer that fact Q is true". There is no constraint on the temporal location of the facts; we may infer a non-past fact from a past fact, as here, or a past fact from a non-past fact, or any other combination.

  • The second sentence is an actualization conditional: If P, then Q = "If eventuality P occurs then eventuality Q follows". The temporal location of eventuality P must be prior to that of eventuality Q. In this case, the unreal past eventualities they had found the killers and there had been a proper investigation are followed by a hypothetical/unreal present consequence: we would not have to see the eventualities which we do see right now.

The sentences are fine; the problem is with your "rules".

What I call the "n-conditionals"—zero, first, second, third, conditional—are not employed in linguistic descriptions of English. They are pedagogic devices for introducing students to the structure of conditional expressions. They describe the most common uses of four common syntactic forms, but they are very far from exhausting either the catalog of acceptable syntactical forms or the semantic uses of the forms they describe. By way of example: I once tried to count the distinct sorts of conditionals described in Declerck & Reed, Conditionals: A Comprehensive Empirical Analysis, de Gruyter 2001; my count broke down somewhere around 130!

The n-conditionals are baby rules. Your understanding of English has evolved past their very limited utility, and they are now obstacles to your understanding. Discard them.

But in casual speech this "rule" is often abrogated, particularly with complex hypotheticals.

The terms seem to have been borrowed in the 1960s from terms sometimes employed in the description of inflectional forms—not syntactic forms—in other European languages; I've been unable to pinpoint exactly when they entered English pedagogy.

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    I suppose you're right that OP's example #1 is an inference conditional. But I'd suggest the easiest way for nns to get their heads around it is to understand if there as being equivalent to since (i.e. - it's a massively "pruned" version of if we take account of the fact that...). But I certainly do get the impression "n-conditional rules" are as much of a hindrance as they are a help to many nns. They're easy for teachers, but probably not much use to the students themselves. Jan 24, 2018 at 15:05
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    @FumbleFingers Fersher. Or Given P, then Q. I think D&R categorize this as a 'closed-P' (we assume that P is true); and of course the "inference" is as it were 'statistical' or 'analogous' rather than strictly logical. Jan 24, 2018 at 15:20
  • Yeah - analogous does seem to be very relevant to OP's specific cite, in that it's not just If P, then Q - there's an implicit if we accept that whatever caused P to happen is something which would also cause Q to happen, and that the same circumstance also arises in respect of Q, then it stands to reason Q will in fact happen. Jan 24, 2018 at 15:44
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    Might be worth pointing out that it's even easier to parse (well, for me at least) if you add extra quotes i.e. I feel like, ‘If we ... then those girls ...’.” It's the person effectively quoting their own inner monologue. Jan 25, 2018 at 1:28

I'm not sure how well this translates to n-conditionals in English, but I can tell you in Italian we have a clear definition of what each conditional type means. I've tried to compare Wikipedia articles on English conditional sentence and Italian "periodo ipotetico", but I see that the English page describes the Italian constructs "in an English way". However, from what I see, there's a certain degree of similarity: I'll let you tell me how much this applies.

In Italian, we have three types of hypothetical period, based on how real the protasis (the premise) is. They're numbered one to three, but we also call them with a very clear name:

  1. "Della realtà" (Reality): there is a strong implication about a fact (the premise) that either has actually happened or is quite certainly going to happen. If I eat, I won't be hungry: I'm not sure whether I will eat or not, but certainly me eating implies that I stops being hungry. It doesn't matter when the premise happened: if you paid your taxes, then you won't receive any fine - it's certain that you won't receive if you paid.

  2. "Della possibilità" (possibility): the premise may happen or not. Should that happen, then the apodosis will happen too. If I told you, you wouldn't believe: there's the possibility that I will tell you, I may tell you or not, but if I tell you then you will surely not believe it. Notice that my last sentence (if I tell you...) is of the first type, because me telling you is a given (not a maybe).

  3. "Dell'irrealtà" (unreality): the premise has not happened. It's nice to talk about what could have happened, but it cannot happen any more because the premise has in fact not happened. If I had bought a Bitcoin five years ago, I would have been rich by now - but I didn't buy it, so I'm not rich. (Again, this last sentence is of the first type because the premise is certain.)

As far as I know, these three Italian types translate quite exactly to the English n-conditionals, with 0- and 1-conditional matching Italian type 1.

  • 1
    Your answer seems to be about Italian grammatical structures, not about English.
    – Lars Mekes
    Jan 25, 2018 at 15:17
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    I draw a parallel between them. I admit that I can't state for certain that the concepts are 100% as valid for English as they are for Italian (I think they are a very close approximation at least), but I think the parallel helps understanding the logic of the conditional sentence in general.
    – Simone
    Jan 25, 2018 at 16:57
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    @LarsMekes - I agree that the answer is mostly about Italian grammatical structures. However, analogies are often quite helpful for learners. I find this answer insightful, informative, and well-written; it's earned my upvote.
    – J.R.
    Jan 25, 2018 at 17:14

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