English Zero Conditionals

Overview

This module covers zero conditionals and their use in English. Zero conditionals are used to present general truths or scientific facts using the simple present tense.

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There are several types of conditional statements in English. Zero conditionals are those that state a fact or a generally understood truth, such as “ice melts when heated” or “the Earth is round.” The form is:

  If + present simple, present simple.

Examples:
If water boils, it evaporates.
If you don’t drink water, you die of thirst.
Bears attack if they are provoked.
When the temperature drops below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, water freezes.

Zero conditionals start with an “if” or “when” clause, followed by the main or independent clause. Note that in one of the examples above, the “if”-clause is located in the second half of the sentence (the main clause comes first). 

The function of the zero conditional is to make statements about the real world, and it is true now and will be in the future. Also, each situation is real and not hypothetical. Here are a few more examples written in various, acceptable ways:

If plants get water and sunshine, they grow.
When plants get water and sunshine, they grow.
Plants grow when they get water and sunshine.

If you wash your hands, they get clean.
Your hands get clean when you wash them.
When you wash your hands, they get clean.

The italicized words above are the main clauses, and “if” and “when” are in bold, marking the beginning of the if- and when-clauses, respectively.

Sometimes, the zero conditional, when combined with the imperative, can be used to give instructions. For example:

If John shows up, have him call me.
If you see a crime, report it to the police.
Email me if the apartment is still available.

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Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

The CEFR is an international standard used to describe language ability. Here are specific details of the CEFR for this topic.

General Explanation:
Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment). Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters. Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.
Specific Capabilities at this Level
Writing:
I can write short, simple notes and messages relating to matters in areas of immediate needs. I can write a very simple personal letter, for example thanking someone for something.
Spoken Production:
I can use a series of phrases and sentences to describe in simple terms my family and other people, living conditions, my educational background and my present or most recent job.
Spoken Interaction:
I can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar topics and activities. I can handle very short social exchanges, even though I can’t usually understand enough to keep the conversation going myself.
Reading:
I can read very short, simple texts. I can find specific, predictable information in simple everyday material such as advertisements, prospectuses, menus and timetables and I can understand short simple personal letters.
Listening:
I can understand phrases and the highest frequency vocabulary related to areas of most immediate personal relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local area, employment). I can catch the main point in short, clear, simple messages and announcements.