Hi, Ahmed Imam, and 'Happy Eid Ul-Fitr,

Ahmed Imam Attia posted:

Hello.

In the following sentence, I think that we cannot use "when" instead of "if", right? - If you answer this question, you have a good brain.

Could you please give more examples of "use if, not when?

Thank you.

This is an old question that I discussed with the editor of Longman Website on 22/08/11 and she gave a detailed answer to it. She said:

"The outside book is correct that when cannot be used in those sentences (she was referring to sentences that I posted like: (A) If you get this exercise right, you have a good brain. b) If you answer the question, you are clever.)

In a zero conditional that can substitute when for if,the main clause actually refers to something in the future.

- If / When you heat ice, it melts.

 The ice melts only after you heat it. But in a sentence such as the ones you ask about, the main clause refers to the present time.

- If you get this exercise right, you have a good brain.

 You have a good brain now (on condition that you get the exercise right)."

- I've just made up the following examples:

1. If you work out this equation, you are Einstein.

2If you don't eat fish or meat, you are a vegetarian.

3. If you beat him easily, you are a professional.

4. If you can modify any questions or answers on the GE, you are one of its contributors.

ahmed_btm posted:
This is an old question that I discussed with the editor of Longman Website on 22/08/11 and she gave a detailed answer to it. She said:

"The outside book is correct that when cannot be used in those sentences (she was referring to sentences that I posted like: (A) If you get this exercise right, you have a good brain. b) If you answer the question, you are clever.)

In a zero conditional that can substitute when for if,the main clause actually refers to something in the future.

- If / When you heat ice, it melts.

 The ice melts only after you heat it. But in a sentence such as the ones you ask about, the main clause refers to the present time.

- If you get this exercise right, you have a good brain.

 You have a good brain now (on condition that you get the exercise right)."

I'd like to add something to this historical answer given by the Longman editor. Even though the main clause of conditionals like "If you get this answer right, you have a good brain" refers to the present, there is an implicit element of futurity.

Notice that the "if"-clause ("if you get this answer right") does refer to something in the future. At the present time, it is unknown whether "you will get this answer right." If you do, then the conclusion will follow. Therefore the real meaning is:

  • If you get this exercise right, [we will know that / we will be able to conclude that / it will follow that] you have a good brain.

Thus, the fact that the main clause refers to the present is not the real reason "when" doesn't work. For we see that there is an implied future element in the main clause. The Longman editor was talking about sentences like this:

  • If you are an unmarried man, you are a bachelor.

That sentence is also like Ahmed_btm's examples (2) and (4), and potentially also (3) depending on whether "if you beat him easily" is given a habitual reading or a one-time reading. None of them is precisely like the outside-book example.

What would make the outside-book example like these others is having the modal "can" in the "if"-clause: "If you can answer this question, you have a good brain." In that revised version, both clauses refer to the present.

All this having been said, it remains true that "when" does not work in the outside-book example: When you answer this question, you have a good brain. Nevertheless, that sentence is not ungrammatical.

The reason that sentence does not work is that it requires a habitual reading. On a habitual reading, "when" is equivalent to "whenever." But a habitual meaning does not match the speaker's intended meaning.

The habitual reading would imply that a person has a good brain sometimes and does not have a good brain at other times. When he has a good brain, he has (just) answered "this question." Obviously that is not the intended meaning.

That is why "when" does not work.

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