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A crash course in the conditional sentence in Arabic: ف and tenses (3/3)

This three-part series of articles is designed to get the trouble out of the way once and for all. Part three is about the Fa’ (ف) and the tenses.

In part three of our series on the conditional sentence in Arabic, we will learn when and how to use ف in a conditional sentence and whether you should use the present or past tense in a conditional sentence.

Why do we need a‎‎ ف‎ in a conditional sentence?

In most conditional sentences with لَوْ or مَنْ or إِذا, you will find the letter فَ in the second part.

Some remarks about the character of فَ:

  • فَ emphasizes the time or sequential aspect (then, hence) and therefore can work as a rhetorical element.
  • فَ offers us greater flexibility since فَ can be followed by the future, a negation, etc.
  • فَ often indicates that the second part/ main clause (apo­dosis) is not the logical result of the conditional clause.

The فَ in a conditional sentence is used to separate the 1st from the 2nd part for grammatical reasons. But at the same time, it links both parts.

The فَ is necessary when the condi­tional device of the first sen­tence cannot extend its power to the verb of the second part.

This may need some thought process. The condition (الشَّرْطُ) and the conse­quent (الْجَوابُ) are closely linked. This is done by…

  1. the conditional device plus two verbs in the مَجْزُومٌ-mood. ➡ You don’t use ف;
  2. by connecting the first to the second part using the letter فَ, a so-called حَرْفٌ رابِطٌ لِلْجَوابِ. This فَ has the grammati­cal effect that the nature of the second part (past tense or present tense in the مَجْزُومٌ-mood; verbal or nomi­nal sen­tence) becomes independent of the first part.

So, when do we use فَ? In the basic form of a conditional sen­tence, you don‘t use فَ. This means that you have two verbal sen­tences with­out anything extra (no negation, no pro­nouns).

Whoever works hard, will succeed.مَنْ يَجْتَهِدْ يَنْجَحْ

In all other situations, you should better use a فَ, no matter what kind of sen­tence the second part is (nominal sentence, verbal sentence, im­perative, نِعْمَ). The فَ is used to show the relationship be­tween the two parts.

In a construction with فَ, the verb can be in the indicative (مَرْفُوعٌ), subjunctive (مَنْصُوبٌ) or jussive mood (مَجْزُومٌ). It depends on the func­tion and position in the sentence.

RULE OF THUMB: Use ف if the second part (الْجَوابُ) is not suitable to be a condition (شَرْطٌ) for إِنْ or other conditional devices.

What about لو and the ف?

If you start the second part (main clause) directly with a verb, you don’t need فَ ‎‎– but instead maybe the device لَ, which is an amplifier and underlines one idea: The situation, which is described in the second part, will only be true if the first part happens (see below).

In other words, if the first part doesn’t happen, the sec­ond part won’t either.

The لَ is normally used for if-clauses type II (if I was…) and III (if I had been…).

If I had known (it), I would have walked..لَوْ عَرَفْتُ لَمَشَيْتُ

Does it matter whether you use the present or the past tense in a conditional sentence?

No, it doesn’t.

In Arabic, a past tense verb is often used in the first part (شَرْطٌ) of the conditional sentence. Could you also use a present tense verb in the مَجْزُومٌ-mood instead? Yes, you could.

The consequence clause (جَوابٌ), i.e., the second part, is often in the same tense as the شَرْطٌ. Nevertheless, a change of tenses is possi­ble – if that is the situation, the particle َف normally precedes the جَوابٌ.

Let’s assume we have an if-clause starting with a conditional device that de­mands the مَجْزُومٌ-mood. What would be the necessary form (tense and mood) of the verb then?

.إِنْ اِجْتَهَدْتَ نَجَحْتَ = إِنْ تَجْتَهِدْ نَجَحْتَ

Meaning: If you work hard, you will succeed. (Both sen­tences mean the same.)

Watch out! Neither the verb in the if-part (فِعْلُ الشَّرْطِ) nor the verb in the sec­ond part (جَوابُ الشّرْطِ) must be in the present tense, jussive mood (مَجْزُومٌ).

Instead, it is possible that one verb is in the past tense (which cannot be put visibly into the مَجْزُومٌ-mood) and the other verb in the present tense مَجْزُومٌ-mood.

It is even possible that both verbs are in the past tense. How come? We can’t put a past tense verb visibly into the مَجْزُومٌ-mood for one spe­cific reason: the past tense verb has a fixed, indeclinable, ce­mented shape (مَبْنِيٌّ) and therefore doesn’t get any mood-marker. ➡ You can’t see that a past tense verb is in the jus­sive mood.

The same ap­plies to the im­perative which also has a fixed shape. Only in the present tense, you can see the jussive mood, marked by a‎ سُكُونٌ‎ (ﹿ ). The key word here is visible, apparent marker – as gram­matically speaking, we can treat a past tense verb as holding the place of a مَجْزُومٌ-mood (فِي مَحَلِّ جَزْمٍ).

Which tenses should you use with لو?

The past tense.

As a rule of thumb, we can say:

  • The first part of a conditional sentence after لَوْ may have a verb in the present or past tense. Usually, the past tense is used.
  • The second part (جَوابُ الشَّرْطِ) doesn’t give you a choice: you must use a past tense verb. But… such past tense verb doesn’t con­vey the meaning of the past tense! In English, we call it condi­tional II (would, could) and in Ger­man Konjunktiv II (würde, kön­nte, wäre).

The past tense is used to express a hypotheti­cal condition. In rare situa­tions, the past tense does convey a past mean­ing when the state­ment in­volves a condition contrary to fact. How can we know the correct tense in English? The meaning of the verb (and of the condition) is only given by the context.

If you gave me the letter, I would read it immediately.لَوْ أَعْطَيْتَنِي هٰذِهِ الرِّسالةَ قَرَأْتُها فَوْرًا
  • If you want to stress that something is impossible, you should add the emphatic particle ل to the beginning of the second part of the sentence. It is a so-called لامُ جَوابِ لَوْ. You also find لَ in the second part of لَوْلا.
  • If you want to stress on the past tense, you could use the past per­fect tense, expressed by: كانَ قَدْ فَعَلَ.

How do you mark a past tense verb in the jussive mood?

You assign a “place value”.

In other words, we say that the past tense verb occupies the place of a state of جَزْمٌ (jussive). In Arabic, a verb in the past tense has a fixed, inde­clinable shape (مَبْنِيٌّ) and therefore does not receive any mood marker.

A past tense verb in the place where you would expect a verb in the jus­sive mood – that happens frequently in the Qur’an.

Say [Prophet], ‘Have you ever thought, what if this revelation really is from God and you still reject it? Who could be more astray than someone who cuts himself off so far [from God]?’ (Sura 42:52)قُلْ أَرَءَيْتُمْ إِن كَانَ مِنْ عِندِ ٱللَّهِ ثُمَّ كَفَرْتُم بِهِۦ مَنْ أَضَلُّ مِمَّنْ هُوَ فِى شِقَاقٍۭ بَعِيدٍۢ

The conditional device إِنْ induces the jussive mood in a following verb. However, the past tense verb كانَ has a fixed shape. We can only say that it appears in the place of a jussive mood (فِي مَحَلِّ جَزْمٍ فِعْلُ الشَّرْطِ).

Why are Arabic if-clauses difficult to translate?

The translation depends on the context – not on tenses or moods.

In most languages, if-clauses are pretty abstract constructions. I was teaching German in Egypt. In one les­son, I talked about New York and said a sentence which in Eng­lish means: If I had money, I would fly to New York.

After the lesson a student came to me and said: Congratula­tions! When are you going to New York? We will miss you! The sentence I used conveys, in fact, a com­plex and abstract idea. So I asked my listeners to do two things: (1) imagine that I am rich and (2) imagine what I would to do as a rich person.

In English, we love to speak in would-, could- and should-sentences. But in Arabi­c, there is no easy way to express this idea. The Arabic verb lacks tenses and moods and specific rules for if-clauses. In­stead, it all depends on the context!

Some hints:

  • Verbs in conditional sentences have no real temporal sig­nificance. The actual tense is determined by the con­text.
  • The verb in the first part of the if-sentence is typically in the past tense – regardless of whether a reference to a past, present, or future situation is intended.
  • The verb in the second or main clause is usually in the past tense too – but other tenses are possible as well.
  • The actual meaning (of the verbs) corresponds to a num­ber of English tenses, depending on the idea of the condi­tion and the context.

This was the last part of our short series of articles about the conditional sentence. Of course there are many more topics and details.

  • Part one was about the basics and main ingredients of a conditional sentence.
  • Part two was about the conditional words (mainly إن and إذا).

Picture credit: cottonbro ; Pexels

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