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If vs. When

 Express a singular condition vs. a recurring action

CFL bulb
 

  If—conditional vs. If / When / Whenever—cause-effect

IF—CONDITION

An if phrase often signals that a condition will follow. That is, if relates a clause with a requirement. "Only after X happens will Y happen." The condition is a singular event that triggers the indicated response. The speaker does not know whether the activity in the if phrase will occur.  Present and past tenses with habitual meaning do not occur in this usage, nor do progressive tenses (as duration is not the focus.)                         

ACTIVITY CONDITION (REQUIREMENT)
MAIN CLAUSE   IF + CLAUSE   (PP)

We will buy some CFL bulbs

if these do not work.

"provided that"

We will buy less-toxic products

if we can find them.

 

We will walk to the store

if it is near us.

 

*We will be recycling the old light bulbs

*if the store is accepting them.

 

IF / WHEN — EFFECT AND CAUSE

An if or when phrase can express a routine response to a situation . That is, if or when relates a clause with timing (frequency). "Anytime X occurs, Y results." That X will occur is predictable (if) or expected (when). The speaker knows that the activity in the if or when phrase is likely to occur. When expresses more certainty than if. Present and past tenses with habitual meaning occur in this usage, but not progressive tenses.

ROUTINE ACTIVITY TIME–RELATED ACTIVITY
MAIN CLAUSE   WHEN + CLAUSE

We usually buy CFL bulbs

if/when we need light bulbs.

"on the occasion that"

We look for less-toxic products

whenever we buy cleaning products.

"any occasion that"  frequency

We walk to the store

anytime we can.

"any occasion that"  frequency

*We are recycling the old light bulbs

*whenever the store is accepting them.

"any occasion that"  frequency

 

if – (1) expresses a condition "X provided that", a singular point in time (conditional adjunct preposition); (2) expresses timing "whenever"; any point in time (temporal adjunct preposition); marks a subordinate clause in a yes-no questions (subordinate marker). See If/Whether.

CFL – compact fluorescent light bulb

recyclable (Adj) – can be treated (reprocessed) and reused

when–expresses a point in time (temporal location )  "at the time"

whenever – expresses "any point in time" (temporal frequency) "anytime"

[if + clause] is a prepositional phrase— if is a connective preposition that takes a clause as its complement (and a few other word forms).

Solution - lightbulbIf "whenever"

(Huddleston 6 §3.3.18, 8 §9[9],12 §6.4)  See Grammar Notes for details.

 

 

 

 

Punctuation

Commas

 

 

Clause Position and Comma Use

INITIAL-POSITION  

commaA comma separates the condition, a prepositional phrase headed by if, from the main clause when it is placed before the main clause.

IF PHRASE EFFECT CLAUSE

If I need light bulbs,

I buy them. 

If had time,

I visited my friends.

FINAL -POSITION

no commaNo comma is used when the adjunct prepositional phrase with if is placed after the main clause.

EFFECT CLAUSE IF PHRASE

I buy light bulbs

if I need them.

I visited my friends

if I had time.

 

 

 

 

 

Common Mistakes

Error and Solution

 

 

Error and Solution

ERROR

If I went shopping, I was taking a cloth bag. 
(A repeated past habit is not expressed in this way.)

 

SOLUTION

If I went shopping, I took a cloth bag (1 event or multiple events, customary) 

If I went shopping, *I would take a cloth bag (multiple events, customary, 'used to')

 

 

 

 

 

 

► Show Grammar Notes and Works Cited ▼ Hide Grammar Notes

Grammar Notes

Traditional Grammar and Current Description

 

 

Traditional and Linguistic Description

TRADITIONAL GRAMMAR LINGUISTIC DESCRIPTION

If-clauses "also called adverb clauses present possible conditions. The main clause expresses result." (Azar 17-6, 20-2)

 

When and if.  To talk about repeated, predictable situations and events (in the sense of 'whenever'), both when and if can be used with little difference in meaning. When / If you heat ice it turns to water. When / If I'm in Liverpool I usually stay with my sister. (Swan 618)

 

 

 

If  "Multiple Situations" 8 §14.1.1

If—frequency adjunct— If he has time, he (usually) visits us

"In cases like this, if implies when, and as with adjuncts of temporal location like when phrases there will often be an accompanying frequency adjunct..." (743)

Whentemporal location expression—When he has time, he (usually) visits us.  ( 6 §3.3.18, 8 §9.11)

Whenever/ Everytime  (8 §9.11) "frequency adjuncts"

 

 

Works Cited

  • Azar, Betty Schrampfer, and Stacy A. Hagen. Understanding and Using English Grammar. 4th ed., Pearson Education, 2009.
  • Huddleston, Rodney and Geoffrey K. Pullum."Reciprocals." The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge UP, 2002.
  • Swan, Michael. "Each other and one another." Practical English Usage. 3rd ed., Oxford UP, 2005. 

 

 

 

 

 

Practice

Energy Conservation

Solar Panels
 

 

Coordinate the present and past real-conditional verb forms

  1. Select the response from the list that best completes the sentence. 
  2. Compare your responses to the feedback by clicking the "Check" or "Check 1-16" button.

 

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.


carpool (V) – share a ride

7.

8.

9.

10.

11.

AC (abbr.) –air-conditioning

12.

13.

   semi-full (Adj) – half full

14.

15.

16.