When or If

When or If

By Alena Lien, 

13 September 2018



We often use "when" and "if" to talk about different types of situations or conditions - that are possible, unreal or certain.

A simple example to demonstrate their difference is:

  • "When I'm older..."

Not - "If I'm older..."



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When

"When" is used to to refer to a future situation that is certain. We can use both the present simple and present perfect tense.

Present simple:

  • "When I arrive in Melbourne, I'll give her a call."

Present perfect:

  • "When I've arrived in Melbourne, I'll give her a call."

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If

"If" is used for situations that are possible to completely unrealistic. For this, we can use past, present and future tenses.

Past simple:

  • If I worked harder, I could have a better job.

Present simple:

  • If I work harder, I'll have a better job.

Future simple:

  • If being a doctor is a good thing, I'll work harder.



Predictable situations

For situations that are predictable or occurs again and again, "when" and "if" can be used interchangeably.

  • "When you run, your heart rate goes up."

  • "If you run, your heart rate goes up."

  • "When I'm cooking, I like to use garlic."

  • "If I'm cooking, I like to use garlic."

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Implied differences

"When" and "if" can imply different things and reveal what the speaker is feeling at the time. Using "when" implies certainty and using "if" implies something possible, even though it is very likely.

Compare the following examples.

Certain:

  • "I'll buy you dinner when I get the job."

(I know I'll get the job.)

Possible:

  • "I'll buy you dinner if I get the job."

(I might get the job, but I'm not sure.)

Certain:

  • "When she comes back, please give this to her."

(I know she is definitely coming back at some point.)

Possible:

  • "If she comes back, please give this to her."

(I'm not sure if she's coming back.)