The conditional is a very important item in Arabic, as it is in other languages. I consider it to be an essential item to be mastered by the non-native student of the language, which is why I have included it in Part II of this book and not Part III, which contains elements of lesser priority.
One quick tip before we begin. If you ever need to impress someone with your spoken (or written) Arabic, use a conditional sentence in your conversation. It will give the impression that you have more control over the language than you may actually have. This is particularly helpful if you are being tested orally. Arabic conditional sentences are very easy to produce, yet they sound more complicated that they are and give the illusion of conveying complex meanings.
If you were to pick up an English grammar book and study the conditional sentence in English, you would find that there are essentially three kinds of conditional sentences in English and that differentiating between them and their meanings is not very difficult. However, if you continued reading the rest of the section on the conditional, you would find that there are approximately one billion variations of the use of the conditional in English based on those three basic types. The variations can be very subtle and can be very difficult for natives, never mind non-natives, to grasp.
In Arabic too, there are three basic types of conditional sentences. They do not quite correspond to the ones in English, but they are even easier to grasp than the English models. The three basic types of conditional sentences have only about two hundred and fifty thousand variations, so again, the Arabic is easier than the English. However, despite this relative ease, the conditional in Arabic can appear to be quite complex to the poor shell-shocked American student. Furthermore, if you were to compare the explanations of the conditional in the most commonly available texts, you would find that they often contradict one another and stress different aspects of the conditional. Some texts leave out things which are very important, while other texts place great emphasis on things which rarely, if ever, occur these days.
The following explanation is based in large part on my own personal experience in learning the language and teaching it. I am going to divide the conditional into three categories. The first is what you absolutely must know. The second is what you should know in addition, but which you could (possibly) figure out for yourself when you come across it (some of which is not included in other texts). The third category includes things which are rarer but which I am including for the sake of pseudo completeness. I am indebted to EMSA and to Haywood/Nahmad, as will be clear from what is below. However I am going to present things in a manner different from both in some respects. I am also going to leave out some things which they do cover, but which you will never see. Here goes.
There are three words in Arabic which are equivalent to the English word “if” These three words are إذا, إنْ and لَوْ. إذا is the most common of the three and will be dealt with first. After that I will treat إنْ, which is the least common of the three. However, its use is not very different from إذا , so it is convenient to group the two together. لَوْ will be treated last, but it is a very important word.
إذا means “if’ in sentences such as “If you read the Washington Post, you will learn (very little) about the Middle East.” Often, إذا implies some note of expectancy, as if the speaker of the sentence is anticipating that the action will take place. Sometimes the note of expectancy is strong and إذا can be translated as “when.” You will see below. First, look at the following sentence and its translation.
If you go to that restaurant, you will eat superb Arabic food.
إذا ذهبتَ الى ذلك المطعم أكلت طعاما عربيا ممتازا
Both sentences above have two clauses. The first is the conditional clause (the clause with the “if’ word). The second is the result clause (the clause that tells you what will happen when something is done). Notice that the conditional clause in Arabic is written in the past tense. In Arabic the conditional clause is almost always in the past tense even though the meaning is usually present tense. You will have to know from context – sometimes the meaning is indeed past tense.
Notice also that the result clause in the Arabic sentence is also in the past tense, but that the English result clause is in the future. Again, the Arabic result clause is often in the past tense but the meaning will not be past tense. The example above is a typical conditional sentence in Arabic using the word إذا .
Now we come to a major variation. While the conditional clause with إذا is virtually always in the past tense, the result clause may be written in any tense or mood that makes sense and conveys the meaning you want to convey. Whenever the result clause is not in the past tense, the result clause is preceded by the particle فَ. Thus, if we rewrite our Arabic sentence putting the result clause in the future, we will have:
إذا ذهبتَ الى ذلك المطعم فسوف تأكلُ طعاما عربيا ممتازا.
The translation of the sentence will remain the same. Below are some more examples of what can be done with the result clause and the effect that it will have on the meaning. Look at the sentences and then at their translations. Then look at my comments.
1. If you go to that restaurant,you will eat superb Arabic food.
١ إذا ذهبتَ الى ذلك المطعم فستأكلُ طعاما عربيا ممتازا
2. If you go to that restaurant, you will never eat superb Arabic food.
٢ إذا ذهبتَ الى ذلك المطعم فَلَنْ تأكل طعاما عربيا ممتازا.
3. If you go to that restaurant, eat superb Arabic food.
٣ إذا ذهبتَ الى ذلك المطعم فَكُلْ طعاما عربيا ممتازا.
The result clauses of each of the three Arabic sentences above all use verbs which are not in the past tense. Each of those clauses begins with فَ. The third sentence has a command in its result clause. This is very common. (I hope you remember how to form the commands for verbs such as أخذ and أكل.) The point is that the result clause can have anything that makes sense as long as it conveys the meaning you wish it to convey. When that clause does not use a simple past tense verb, the clause must begin with فَ .
Now for another important variation. How would you say, “If you do not go to that restaurant you will not eat superb Arabic food”? Look at the answer below.
إذا لم تذهبْ الى ذلك المطعم فسوف لا تأكلُ طعاما عربيا ممتازا.
The verb with إذا must be negated with لم and the jussive. There is no other way. The verb in the result clause may be negated in any appropriate way. For example, we can negate the result clause as well using لم and the jussive and have the sentence mean the same thing. However, such usage of لم in the result clause is extremely rare.
As I noted above, إذا can sometimes even be translated as “when,” depending on the strength of the expectancy involved. Thus, it could be possible to translate our model conditional sentence as “When you go to the restaurant …” In fact, إذا is often used used to mean “when” or “whenever” in both classical and modem literature. When used this way, the result clause often does not begin with a ف even when a non-perfect tense verb is used.
إنْ also means “if’. It does not imply any likelihood that the condition will happen. It is used exactly like إذا . It is usually followed by a past tense verb. When negated, the conditional verb is negated with لم and the jussive. The result clause is usually in the past tense as well. If the result is not in the past tense, then فَ must precede the result clause as is the case with إذا. (See note 1 below) Therefore, we could replace إذا with إنْ in every single illustration above with no important change in meaning. So you can mentally do so now if you need to in order to ingrain this in your mind.
Now we come to لَوْ. لَوْ also means “if’ but is only used for contrary to fact conditions. Look at the sentence below.
If you had read that book you would have understood the issue of Palestine.
.لو قرأت ذلك الكتاب لَفهمتَ قضية فلسطين
The result clause is also always in the past tense. Normally the result clause is preceded by لَ The function of the لَ is just to tell you that the result clause is coming. Some texts say that the لَ is mandatory, but that is not the case. However, the لَ is almost always used these days.
The clause with لو is negated with لم and the jussive. The result clause is negated only with ما to which the لَ is usually attached. Thus, our model sentence above would be negated as follows.
If you had not read that book you would not have understood the issue of Palestine.
لو لم تقرأ ذلك الكتاب لما فهمتَ قضية فلسطين.
Do not confuse لَما used here in the result clause with the word لَمّا, which means “when.” Also, remember that the لَ used here in the result clause can be dropped before the negative ما, so the sentence could simply be:
لو لم تقرأ ذلك الكتاب ما فهمتَ قضية فلسطين
These are the bare bones basics of the conditional. You absolutely must know at least this much. As you can see, the material presented above is not very difficult. Unfortunately, most students never even master this much. The next section will give you additional information about the conditional which you will find very helpful if you understand the material above. So forge on.
Additional On The Conditional
The following information concerns items that you will come across from time to time if you read newspapers, academic articles, or fiction in Modern Standard Arabic. While you could probably figure out a fair amount of the items below using your dictionary and working from context, I am including them here for your convenience. Most general grammars cover some, but not all, of these items.
The first item is إذا ما. إذا ما means “when” or “whenever” but it also can just mean “if’. You will see it often in the papers in sentences such as the following.
There will be a comprehensive and just peace in the Middle East when (if) Israel and the PLO agree to negotiate.
سيكون سلام شامل وعادل في الضرق الاوسط إذا ما وافقت اسرائيل والمنظمة على التفاوض
Note that it really does not make a difference whether you use “when” or “if’ to translate إذا ما in the sentence above. Usually that will be the case. What I am concerned about is that students, when they see the word ما after إذا, tend to translate the ما as a negative particle – and therefore completely misunderstand the sentence.
The second item is ما إذا, which means “whether.” For example:
This depends on whether the two sides agree.
هذا يعتمد على ما إذا وافق الطرفان
A third item is إلاّ إذا which means “unless.” For example:
We will not see progress unless the two sides sit together.
لن نرى تقدما إلا إذا تجالس الطرفان
وَ and حتى are used with both إنْ and لَوْ to mean “even if.” حتى is also used with إذا to mean the same thing. Here are examples.
1. I will not speak with him, even if he pleads with me.
١. لن اتكلم معه حتى إِذا توسّل اليَّ.
2. I will not speak with him, even if he pleads with me.
٢. لن اتكلم معه وإنْ توسّل اليَّ.
3. I will not speak with him,even if he pleads with me.
٣. لن اتكلم معه ولو توسّل اليَّ.
لولا means “if not for” and is followed by a noun in the nominative case. For example:
If not for Islam, the Arabic language would not have spread.
لولا الإسلام لَما إنتشرت اللغة العربية
Sometimes the verb كان is used along with the past tense of a verb in the conditional clause if the meaning is in the past tense and the speaker or writer wishes to remove any element of doubt about the tense of that clause. For example, let’s look at the model sentence with which we began this enterprise. This time, our meaning is in the past tense.
1. If you have gone to that restaurant, then you have eaten good Arabic food.
١. إذا (إنْ) ذهبتَ الى ذلك المطعم أكلت طعاما عر ممتازا
2. If you have gone to that restaurant, then you have eaten good Arabic food.
٢. إذا (إنْ) كنتَ ذهبتَ الى ذلك المطعم أكلت طعاما عربيا ممتازا.
Sometimes you will see كان used as it is in the second sentence above to avoid any ambiguity. Also, if the subject is before the main verb, كان will be used immediately after إذا , إنْ or لَوْ Thus إنْ كان المدير ذهب “If the director has gone …” Sometimes قد. may be added as well إنْ كان المديرُ قد ذهب
There is one other thing about which you should be aware. There are a number of little words in Arabic which have conditional force. These words, like the actual conditional particles, are followed by the verb in the past tense but the meaning is almost always present tense. مَهما, means “whatever” and is a good example. Look at the sentence below.
I will finish this book no matter what happens (may happen).
.سأُكمل هذا الكتاب مهما حدث
There are quite a number of words that work like مهما Among the most common and the most likely you will see are those below.
Whenever (and “the more . . .)
There are others, but these are enough to get the point across. So do not be confused when you see these little words followed by a verb in the past tense. The little word itself will be in the dictionary (usually), so you can look it up if it is new to you. The verb after it should be translated in the present tense.
Now we come to elements of the conditional which you will not see very often. These are included for the sake of completeness and because it is certainly possible that you may see them. Even so, I am still leaving out a few things that you will almost certainly never see.
The first thing is that the particle إنْ can sometimes be followed by a verb in the jussive instead of in the past tense. In fact, of all things presented under this section, this is the item you are most likely to see. When the jussive is used in the conditional clause, it must also be used in the result clause. For example:
If you go to that restaurant, you will eat superb Arabic food.
.إنْ تَذْهَبْ الى ذلك المطعم تأكُلْ طعاما عربيا ممتازا
Another rare item (it occurs mainly in proverbs and classical works) is for the conditional clause to be a command. When that is the case no conditional particle is used. Furthermore, the result clause must then be jussive. For example.
Study this language and you will be successful.
.أُدْرُسْ هذه اللغة تَكُنْ ناجحا
لَوْ is sometimes used with a following present tense verb with the sense of “if only” or “would that such and such were so.” Usually this use of لو comes after a verb such as وَدَّ “to wish” or “to desire.”
I wished (would have liked) that the reporter could understand one Arabic word.
ودِدْتُ لو يستطيع المراسل أنْ يفهم كلمة عربية واحدة
That does it for the conditional. Do Drill 53.
Congratulations. You have accomplished a great deal if you have mastered most of the material in the book up until now. Essentially, if you are comfortable with the material covered so far, you are ready to begin seriously reading Arabic newspaper articles, editorials, academic articles, short stories and novels. You cannot read those things without knowing what is in Parts I and II of this book. If you know those things, you can now begin to deal with almost any Arabic texts written by Arabs for Arabs. Advice on how to do this is in Part III of this book. الف مبروك.
Note 1 – Actually with regard to إنْ , there are some instances when the ف does not have to be attached. If the result clause begins with an imperfect indicative verb, the ف is not required.