Do you have a panic attack when you start a sentence with the word if? Don’t worry, you’re not alone!

Many people think back to their school days and the problems they had with these conditional (if) sentences in their English class. Thankfully, German also has them, but there are some key differences, which means that there are some typical mistakes made by German speakers. Here are my top 5:

1. Forgetting to use the future in the first conditional (“If it rains tomorrow, I stay at home.”)

Because the present tense is often used to talk about the future in German, German speakers often forget to use the future tenses in an English first conditional sentence.

Will is never used in the if-clause, but should be included in the other part (or another future construction like going to or a modal verb like can or have to):

English German
If it rains tomorrow, I will stay at home. Wenn es morgen regnet, bleibe ich zu Hause.
If I have enough money next weekend, I’m going to go to the cinema. Wenn ich nächstes Wochenende genug Geld übrig habe, gehe ich ins Kino.

Tip: It’s important to know that forgetting to use a future tense often turns the sentence into a zero conditional* sentence, changing the meaning completely, so make sure you make it clear that you’re speaking about the future.

*The zero conditional is most often used to talk about general facts or repeated actions in the present. Compare these two sentences:

English German
If it rains, I stay at home.
(Zero conditional; this is what usually happens)
(Immer) wenn es regnet, bleibe ich zu Hause.
If it rains (tomorrow), I’ll stay at home.
(First conditional; this is what will happen in the future)
Wenn es (morgen) regnet, bleibe ich zu Hause.

2. Mixing up when and if in the first conditional (“If I die, I won’t need my phone.”)

In first conditional sentences, the choice of when or if is critical. We use when when we are sure that the situation will happen, and if when we are not 100% sure. In German, we usually hear wenn for both situations (even though falls could be used when the situation isn’t sure):

English German
When I die, I won’t need my phone.
(I’m sure I’ll die one day.)
Wenn ich sterbe, werde ich mein Handy nicht mehr brauchen.
If I die tomorrow, I won’t need my phone.
(I’m not sure if I’ll die tomorrow)
Wenn (or falls) ich morgen sterbe, werde ich mein Handy nicht mehr brauchen.

If we ask ourselves the question: Will I die? the answer is yes. But Will I die tomorrow? would be answered with ‘I’m not sure.’

This means that “I’ll do it when I have time,” has a completely different meaning than “I’ll do it if I have time.” (The first is a promise – I know I will have time; the second is not – maybe I will have time; maybe I won’t.)

Tip: Once you realise how much the choice of when or if changes the meaning, you’ll naturally start to be more careful. Look for as many examples as you can.

3. Misunderstanding the second conditional

Just because we typically use the second (past) form of the verb in the if-clause of the second conditional, it doesn’t mean we’re talking about the past. We’re actually talking about the present or future!

Like German, we use the second conditional to talk about a ‘parallel present’ or an unrealistic or hypothetical situation in the future. German has a special tense known as the Konjunktiv (with forms like wäre, hätte, wüsste and stünde), but the English equivalent almost always has the same form as the past.

That means that had can mean both hatte and hätte, knew can mean wusste or wüsste and spoke could mean both sprach and sprechen würde:

English German
If I knew that, I would tell you.
(In reality, I don’t know that, so I can’t tell you.)
Wenn ich das wüsste, würde ich es dir sagen.
If I spoke to the Queen of England tomorrow, I would say hi from you.
(It’s unrealistic (or impossible) that I’ll speak to the Queen tomorrow.)
Wenn ich morgen mit der Königin von England sprechen würde, würde ich sie von dir grüßen.

Tip: Use the context to understand if someone is speaking hypothetically. Is the situation real, or are we only imagining it at the moment?

4. Using would in both parts of the second conditional (“If I would know that, I would tell you.”)

Because German speakers often use würde in both parts of the second conditional, it’s understandable why they make this mistake in English. Generally, we shouldn’t use would in the if-clause; instead we use the second (past) form of the verb:

English German
If I would know knew that, I would tell you. Wenn ich das wüsste, würde ich es dir sagen.
If I would speak spoke to the Queen of England tomorrow, I would say hi from you. Wenn ich morgen mit der Königin von England sprechen würde, würde ich sie von dir grüßen.

Tip: To practise, make a chain based on an unrealistic event:
“If I won the lottery, I would buy a Ferrari… and if I bought a Ferrari, I would drive really fast… if I drove really fast, the police would stop me… if the police stopped me, I would get a ticket…” and so on.

5. Using would have in both parts of the third conditional (“If I would have known, I would have told you”)

Because German uses a combination of hätte/wäre and the third form of the verb (e.g. hätte gesprochen, hätte gearbeitet, wäre gegangen) in both parts, German speakers generally try to use would have in both parts of an English third conditional sentence.

We use had + 3rd form in the if clause, and would have + 3rd form in the other:

English German
If I would have known had known that, I would have told you.
(I didn’t know, so I didn’t tell you.)
Wenn ich das gewusst hätte, hätte ich es dir gesagt.
If he would have walked had walked faster, he wouldn’t have missed the train.
(He didn’t walk faster, so he missed the train.)
Wenn er schneller gelaufen wäre, hätte er den Zug nicht verpasst.

Tip: As many native speakers also make this mistake, many would forgive you for this one!

General tip: There’s a lot of grammar to think about when forming conditional sentences, so if you think you’ve made a mistake and could be misunderstood, add more context to make your point clear.

But the first step is being aware of the mistakes you’re making. Only then can you start to correct them and improve!

If you have any questions about any of the points in this post, please feel free to send me an email at: philmarlowenglish@gmail.com

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