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If Sentences for IELTS Writing (with examples)

One important type of grammar to use in the IELTS writing test is an ‘if sentence’, sometimes called a ‘conditional’ or an ‘if clause’. These are incredibly flexible and once you know how to use them, you will be able to use them in almost any IELTS essay you write. There are four main types of these which are called zero, first, second and third. Each of these has a different grammatical structure and expresses something different.

Zero conditional 

The zero conditional is used to express something that is generally true. You can think of it as something that is ‘true all the time’. Some examples would be:

  • If students study for tests for tests, they pass them. 
  • If you heat ice, it melts. 
  • If you are always late, you get fired. 

In all of these examples, you can see the sentence is expressing something that is true all of the time. We often use this type of sentence for expressing scientific laws like in the second example. The structure is we use to build these sentences is: 

If + present simple + present simple. 

First conditional

The first conditional is used to look at what could happen in the future. Some examples of this are: 

  • If she studies for the test, she will pass. 
  • If you don’t leave now, you’ll miss your train. 
  • If I get paid today, I’ll buy you dinner. 

You can see that in these sentences, we are not sure if the first thing will happen. However, if it does, the second thing is certain to happen. This is different to the zero conditional because these examples are talking about a specific event rather than a general rule. The structure of these sentences is 

If + present simple + will + infinitive (without ‘to’).

Second conditional

The second conditional is quite similar to the first conditional; however, we use it to talk about events that are very unlikely. For example: 

  • If she studied for the test, she would pass. 
  • If we had the time, we’d love to come to your party. 
  • If I won the lottery, I’d buy a yacht. 

For these sentences, the first thing is very unlikely. However, in the unlikely event that it did happen, the second thing would be certain. This is different from the first conditional where the first thing is more possible. The structure is

If + past simple, would/could + infinitive (without ‘to’). 

Third conditional 

The final type of conditional is the third conditional. It’s the only one we use to talk about the past. Normally it is used to describe what could have happened. For example: 

  • If you had studied for the test, you would have passed. 
  • If I had set an alarm, I would have woken up on time. 
  • If he had been born in America, he would have been happier. 

In all of these examples, we are describing something that didn’t happen. The second part of the sentence describes what result would have occurred if the first thing happened. The structure is: 

If + past perfect, would have + past participle.

When we make the third conditional negative, we can describe something that needed to happen for something else to happen: 

  • If I hadn’t studied for the test, I would have failed. 
  • If he hadn’t worn a helmet, his injuries would have been much worse. 
  • If we hadn’t met, I would not be so confident. 

Understanding the differences between conditionals

It can be a little confusing to understand the differences between conditionals, so I want to share a set of examples with you and explain the differences in meaning between them. The examples are:

  • If students study for the test, they pass. 
  • If she studies for the test, she will pass. 
  • If she studied for the test, she would pass. 
  • If you had studied for the test, you would have passed. 

If students study for the test, they pass. 

This sentence is talking about a general rule. It is describing a test that anyone can pass as long as they study. It’s something that is true all the time. Next year, everyone who studies will also pass the test. 

If she studies for the test, she will pass. 

This is describing someone who is studying for a specific test. This is different from the previous example which is more of a general rule. In this example, there is some possibility of the person actually studying. 

If she studied for the test, she would pass. 

This is similar to the previous example because it is talking about a specific test in the future. However, in this example, the student is so lazy that you think it is very unlikely she will actually study. 

If you had studied for the test, you would have passed. 

This is the only example about a test that has already happened. In this example, you failed the test because you didn’t study. 

Using if sentences in the IELTS exam

This sentence type is very flexible and can be used in all sorts of places in the IELTS exam. One way of using it in the writing exam that can spice up your grammar is to use it to describe how people can achieve their goals. For example, instead of writing: 

  • We should make education free for all to encourage everyone to get a degree. 

We can write: 

  • If we want everyone to get a degree, we should make education free for all. 

Final thoughts

If you follow the advice in this article, you’ll be using if sentences in no time. This really is one of the most flexible types of grammar you can learn for the IELTS exam, so keep practising. One useful way of practising is to take an essay you’ve already written and try and improve the grammar by adding some if sentences. You can also take a look at some examples from our book of sample IELTS essays.

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