There are five main ways to form the conditional in Japanese and each has its own nuance or prescribed usage.
|〜たら||The General Case|
|〜ば||The Strong Conditional|
You can think of all but the last as being closely related—the nuance is in the degree to which you wish to stress the conditionality of the sentence.
In English we make a fairly clear distinction between “when” and “if”.
|When I get home I’m going to make hot chocolate.|
|If I get home I’m going to make hot chocolate.|
In Japanese the difference is not so well defined. For example, we could translate 〜たら as “when” or “if” depending on the context.
The conditional form using と is used to express a natural consequence of A—not an action that you will take. We will look at each of these in more detail.
The General Case (～ら)
The 〜たら form of the conditional is the most common and the safest for learners precisely because it is so universally applicable.
To create the 〜たら conditional for all verbs we simply take standard past tense or negative and add ら.
|Verb||Dictionary||+ve Conditional||-ve Conditional|
|to come back|
|If my work finishes early I will join for drinks.|
|If I go to Kyoto on a business trip I will take a photo of the kinkaku-ji.|
|Tonight when I get home I’ll drink a beer and then watch television.|
So how do we know whether 〜たら means “when” or “if”? Well, you often know from the context of the sentence. Let’s look again the first example sentence above. If we translate the conditional as “when” it sounds strange: “When work finishes early I will join for drinks” (we don’t know for a fact that we will finish early). Equally, in the last sentence it’s reasonable to assume that you’re going to get home at some point so “when” is probably a more natural translation.
|Give me a shout if you don’t understand.|
|I wish it were Friday.|
This way of creating the conditional is not limited to the standard past tense, we can also use it with the potential form, as well as the causative and passive forms which will be introduced later.
|If you can read kanji then I think you can work in Japan.|
We can change adjectives following exactly the same rules.
|Adjective||Dictionary||+ve Conditional||-ve Conditional|
|If your grades are good let’s go for dinner.|
|If the room is cold I won’t be able to sleep.|
The Stronger Conditional (～ば)
Unlike 〜たら, 〜ば places more emphasis on the possibility that the first clause might not happen and, as such, is usually translatable as “if”.
The 〜ば affirmative conditional ending is formed for all verbs by changing the “u” ending to an “e” ending syllable on the same row and adding ば.
する → すれ＋ば → すれば
For the negative conditional we replace the ending ない with なければ.
する → しな
い → しなければ
|Verbs||Dictionary||+ve Conditional||-ve Conditional|
|to go home|
|If I drink alcohol I get sleepy.|
|Let’s go on holiday together if we get another chance.|
|If I miss the last train can I stay the night?|
The 〜ば conditional is very often used to form a “What should I do?” type of question.
|What should I order?|
|When I meet her what should I say?|
Like with 〜たら we can also change the potential form of the verb.
|If I could get an answer by Friday it would be very much appreciated.|
|If you can’t even make pasta then Tiramisu is out of the question.|
For the auxiliary verb, we need to use the literary form. We have three forms of the auxiliary verb:
In terms of conjugation, you can think of the literary form of the verb as simply で and the verb ある, for which we already know the conjugation. Consequently, to form to the 〜ば conditional we follow the above rules to get であれば for the affirmative and でなければ for the negative.
|If you’re arriving at the weekend then I think I will be able to collect you.|
|If he isn’t a teacher, then who is he?|
For i-adjectives, we change the い into ければ.
|Adjective||Dictionary||+ve Conditional||-ve Conditional|
|If this TV programme isn’t interesting you can change the channel.|
“You can change the channel” is a more natural translation of the literal “even if you change the channel it’s good.
For na-adjectives, as you’ve probably worked out, we need the literary form of the auxiliary verb introduced above.
|If Tuesday is impossible let’s find another day.|
|If my passport is also required I will bring it tomorrow.|
A Basis for a Statement (～なら)
なら places a much stronger emphasis on A being a condition to B. A close literal translation might be: “On the basis that the situation A exists, then B will occur/be true.” Unlike the previous conditionals, there is no need to alter verb forms or remember any particular rules—you simply add なら to dictionary form of the verb, adjective, or noun. Simple!
|I know you have it in you!|
|We’re having drinks tomorrow. I’d be happy if you could make it.|
Note that the but conjunction is being used to introduce the topic of drinks to the conversation and would not get translated as “but” in English.
|If the department boss says it’s okay then let’s go home early today.|
In Japanese companies more senior employees are often referred to by their title rather than their name.
|If you promise not to fight with your little brother I’ll take you both to the amusement park.|
You may see ば added to this form of the conditional. This does not change the meaning—it is merely another form of なら.
|If it’s really too embarrassing, you don’t have to make the presentation.|
あまりにも looks like あまり but actually means something quite different. It comes before adjectives to mean “too much”, often with a negative connotation.
Natural Consequences (～と)
Where 〜たら, 〜ば and 〜なら preceded actions, と precedes a natural consequence (not typically an action that you will take).
と attaches itself to the dictionary form of the verb.
|If glass falls it will break.|
|If you turn off the TV it will become quiet.|
However, it doesn’t have to be such a physically natural consequence; と can be used to imply that something always happens as if it were a natural consequence.
|Once exams have finished I immediately forget what I learnt.|
The following, however, would be strange since going shopping with your friend is not a generally accepted truth upon finishing exams.
|Once exams have finished I will go shopping with my friend.|
In this case the 〜たら form would be the better conditional form.
|Doors close soon after the melody ends.|
|It would nice if it’s sunny tomorrow.|
〜といいですね is a common way of saying, “It would be nice if…” and is likely to appear on the JLPT N4/N5 examination.
For the auxiliary verb we add と to the standard form だ.
|60 points and above is a pass.|
I-adjectives follow the same rules: just add the と particle after the dictionary form of the adjective. Na-adjectives take the auxiliary verb as above.
|Hopefully the film is good.|
Whereas the other forms of the condition mainly differ based on the level of conditionality, とすると is used to present a purely hypothetical situation. In this sense, it is close to “were” and “would” in English. The structure uses と to append the verb “to do” to the prior verb. This “to do” verb is then changed into the conditional, giving us three possible structures.
You don’t tend to see とするなら so I’ve omitted it as an option from above.
Essentially, we use the same grammar as we learnt for the other conditionals but “double-up” on the verb. The nuance is identical for all three; although, at a push, you could argue that とすれば tends to be used more after nouns and adjectives.
|If I were to study abroad I suppose I would go to the U.K.|
|Assuming that it’s true I guess I’ll resign.|
|If you could go back in time to which era would you choose?|
|There’s nothing particularly unnatural, but if I were to correct it I suppose I’d break the sentence into two.|
|All else being equal, the Japanese prefer Japanese-made products.|
What about Moshi?
Many textbooks will introduce the conditional along with もし and consequently learners begin to associate this word with “if”. As we have seen, you do not need もし to form the conditional. So what does it do? Well, like how 〜たら, 〜ば and 〜なら express different levels of conditionality, もし merely emphasises the uncertainty of A happening in the first place or of B being a condition of A. It is placed before the conditional clause like so:
|If you’re thinking you want to study Japanese then I’ll teach you.|
|If you’re going to go to Kyoto the night bus is the cheapest way.|
|If it’s okay with you, I’d like to see you again.|
|If it’s okay with you, how about going together?|
Note! もし cannot be used with と.