The first conditional is used for more than just talking about future events. We need to explore common communicative functions of the first conditional such as making promises and negotiating.

What is the first conditional?

The first conditional (as it’s often called) is generally a sentence with two clauses:

  • an ‘if’ clause with the present tense (or verb 1)
  • a conditional clause with some reference to the future (will, might, may)

Here is an example commonly found in grammar reference books:

If it rains tomorrow, I’ll take my umbrella with me.

Why is it sometimes called a real conditional?

The first conditional is sometimes called a real conditional. It is real because the situation (context) is not an imaginary one (it might rain tomorrow) and the consequence (taking an umbrella) is a likely or possible action in the future.

Most descriptions of the first conditional focus on form

Before writing this post, I did a quick online search for explanations of the first conditional. Most explanations (for teachers and students) covered the form but didn’t really explore the functions.

As a side note, make sure your learners know that ‘to be going to’ is often used in the conditional form.

If you do that again, you’re going to have an accident.

What is the most commonly taught function of the first conditional? 

Many explanations were vague. Here are some examples:

We use the first conditional to talk about the result of an imagined future situation, when we believe the imagined situation is quite likely.

It’s used to talk about things which might happen in the future. Of course, we can’t know what will happen in the future, but this describes possible things, which could easily come true.

We use first conditional when talking about possible future events.

Talking about possible future events is a general communicative function. There are specific functions of the first conditional which we should explore.

Why don’t we explore the range of functions of the first conditional?

Some course books and grammar reference books mention specific functions but I’m not sure they are explored in any depth.

The first conditional isn’t particularly difficult for our learners. It’s easy enough to present, the structure is logical, and we can give them lots of transformation and gap-fill exercises to ensure they master the form. 

I would argue that learners feel as if they have mastered the form but rarely get sufficient exposure and practice opportunities to perform the specific functions.

How often do we explore the range of functions associated with the first conditional? Our typical explanation (future possibilities related to real events) is rather vague and doesn’t really engage the learners.

The other functions are more difficult as concepts, but we can provide clear and memorable contexts to present the first conditional when used for these other communicative functions.

What are the specific functions of the first conditional?

There are many functions of the first conditional which are rarely explored by teachers. Let’s look at some examples:

If you eat these vegetables, you’ll grow up to be a big strong boy like your brother.

You’ll get sick again if you don’t take your medicine.

You’re going to get fired if I catch you smoking in the bathoom again.

If we don’t make a decision soon, we won’t have any options left.

You’ll be eating hospital food for a week if you speak to my wife like that again!

If we agree to a 5% increase in your salary, will you be willing to relocate to Manchester?

When we start thinking about the real function of these sentences, we can bring them to life.

If you eat these vegetables, you’ll grow up to be a big strong boy like your brother.

In this sentence, we can imagine a parent persuading their child to eat some vegetables. The parent is trying to influence the behaviour of the child. In other words, they are trying to persuade or convince.

Here are some common functions of the first conditional

Persuading / Convincing: to make someone do or believe something by giving them a good reason to do it or by talking to that person and making them believe it.

If you eat these vegetables, you’ll grow up to be a strong boy like your brother.
If you don’t buy this product now, you’ll regret it.
Juts imagine. If you accept this job, you’ll be running the department within 6 months.

Warning: to make someone realize a possible danger or problem, especially one in the future:

You’ll get sick again if you don’t take your medicine.

If you don’t pass the exam, you won’t go to university.
If you walk home alone, something bad might happen.
If you don’t pay attention to the road, you’ll have an accident.

Making threats: to tell someone that you will kill or hurt them or cause problems if they do not do what you want

If you do that again, I’ll report you to the police!
I’ll leave you for good if you speak to me in that way again.
If I catch you smoking in the bathroom again, you’re going to get fired!

Making promises: to tell someone that you will certainly do something

If you eat those carrots, I’ll buy you an ice cream.
I’ll take you to the concert if you pass your English exam.
If you lend me £10, I’ll pay you back £20.

Making offers: to ask someone if they would like to have something or if they would like you to do something

I’ll pick you up from the airport if your plane gets in late.

If you buy two packs, you’ll get a third pack for free.
We’ll enter you in our competition for a holiday to New York if you write your email here.

Discussing options: to talk about a subject with someone and tell each other your ideas or opinions

Well, if we accept the offer, we’ll make $5000 in the next 6 months.
But, if we wait until next year, the long-term benefits will be higher.
Um, but if we don’t make a decision soon, they’ll take both options off the table.

Negotiating: to have formal discussions with someone in order to reach an agreement with them

So, if we agree to a 5% increase in your salary, will you be willing to relocate to Manchester?
If I relocate to Manchester, will you pay for the relocation costs?
How about this? If you agree to work in Manchester, we’ll pay for 60% of your relocation costs and put you and your family up in a 5-star hotel for the first month until you find somewhere to live.
OK. I’ll agree to that as you long as you provide two season tickets to watch Manchester United for me and my son.

Activities to encourage our learners to explore the functions of the first conditional

In my experience, learners are far more engaged by exploring functions such as warning and negotiating than something as general as ‘future events’.

We often present the first conditional to A2 level learners and give them plenty of opportunities to practise the form. Then, we move on to more complex conditionals and rarely explore the more interesting and useful functions of the first conditional.

Warning: Encourage rather than insist that your learners use the first conditional in these freer practice activities. Other exponents (structures and phrases) are used to perform these functions and insisting on only one form leads to awkward and inauthentic discussions.

Here are some activities you could use to explore these functions

Persuading and Convincing
  • Selling Products: Students try to convince their peers to buy their products/services
  • Speed Dating: Students convince their peers to choose them as their date.
  • Holiday Planning: Students try to persuade their peers that their choice for a holiday destination is the best option.
  • Purchasing: Students try to persuade their peers that their preference for a new car/computer/mobile phone is the best option.
  • Survival Task: Students are stranded somewhere (desert. the moon, on a raft in the ocean) and have to persuade their peers to take action.
  • Negative Consequences: Students try to dissuade their peers from doing something by focusing on the possible consequences. If you get married to him, you’ll be expected to give up your job. If you leave your job to travel the world, you’ll never buy a house when you’re older.
  • Safety Guides: Students create a guide (travel, going to university, moving to another country) with a list of warnings.
Making threats and rules
  • Role plays: Students act out situations of conflict, such as meetings between students and teachers, parents and children, husband and wife, rival businesses, police officers and suspects.
  • Creating rules, regulations, and laws. Create a class contract for learners and teachers: We can only use our mobile phones in class if our teacher says we can.
Making Promises and Offers
  • Sales copy: Students discuss how to promote their products or businesses. They think of enticing promises and offers.
  • Radio / TV adverts: Students use this sales copy to create short radio or TV ads.
  • Study contracts: Students work with the teacher to create study contracts detailing what each part promises to do. For example: The teacher will show us a short film every Friday if we all do our homework.
Discussing Options and Consequences (Negotiating)
  • Syllabus Planning: Teachers and students discuss the syllabus and type of activities for their English classes. This is a really valuable activity as it encourages students to take responsibility for their own learning. They explore options using first conditionals. If we focus on speaking for the first 6 weeks, we can work on our writing in the second half of the course.
  • Business Negotiations: Great for Business English learners. Student A (or Group A) has a goal. Student B (or Group B) has a different goal. Both parties enter into a negotiation in order to achieve their goal.

As you can see, we can create a variety of authentic tasks related to the functions listed above.

These tasks can be used to give our learners the opportunity to practise first conditionals and related structures (provided that, in the case of, as long as etc.)

More importantly, they can acquire a deeper understanding of the specific communicative purposes of the structure.

Have I missed any common functions? Please let me know.









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