Conditional grammar isn’t unconditional


A lot of people don’t know this about me, but I almost went to school for computer programming. This might not seem like it has to do with grammar, but trust me: with a little more than 350 words, I can tie anything together.

One of the first pieces of computer syntax you learn in basic programming is “if-then” statements. In computer terms, if you press the “K” button on your keyboard, then a “K” will appear on your screen. If the computer’s internal clock reads 7 a.m., then it will conduct an automated virus scan.

Like most aspects of programming, “if-then” statements are based on an element of grammar: conditional sentences. During my explanation last week of comma splices, I found myself using conditional sentences frequently, and so I thought it would be appropriate to examine them this week.

Conditional sentences are used to express implied or hypothetical situations and their consequences. As with our computer, in a conditional sentence if one thing is true, then another thing will happen. For example: If I do not go to work, then I will lose my job. If I do not wash my clothes, then they will become dingy. If I do not watch Star Trek, then I will miss out on a lot of great television. (That last one is a subject of some debate.)

There are three main types of conditional sentences in English: implicative, predictive (or hypothetical) and counterfactual (or unfulfilled hypothetical). So far we have only talked about implicative sentences: If “A” happens, then “B” will happen. Implicative sentences are used for certainties. Hypothetical/predicative sentences are used for possibilities. For example: If there’s a zombie outbreak, civilization will collapse. Although it is a possible scenario, a zombie outbreak does not necessarily mean a collapse of civilization. Thus, the sentence is hypothetical.

The last sort of conditional sentence, counterfactual/unfulfilled hypothetical, is used for statements which are obviously false or unlikely. For example: If I were a betting man, I’d say this will be a mild winter. The understanding is that the speaker is not a betting man, and therefore does not wish to predict the season’s weather. This form is often used to state things which you aren’t going to do, or which aren’t going to happen.

Before I leave you, I want to note that the conditional sentence is one occasion in which commas may be used without coordinating conjunctions. Because the first part of a conditional sentence is a dependent clause – “If ‘A’” – and not an independent clause, a conjunction is not needed to attach it to the main clause – “Then ‘B.’” Also, note that “if” is not the only way to start a conditional sentence: “unless,” “should,” “were” “provided that” and “as long as” are also viable options.