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conditional in arabic

A crash course in the conditional sentence in Arabic: the basics (1/3)

This three-part series of articles is designed to get the trouble out of the way once and for all. Part one is about the basics.

Last updated: 4 months ago

The sentence (جُمْلةُ الشَّرْطِ) is one of the most difficult sentence struc­tures in any language. In a three-part series of articles, we will look at tricky things in Arabic conditional clauses.

  • In part one, we look at the basics: the two parts of a conditional sentence, its DNA and specialities.
  • In part two, we will check the different ways to express if in Arabic and the most common conditional words. We will also look at the difference between إن and إذا.
  • In part three, we will learn when and how to use ف in a conditional sentence and whether you should use the present or of the verb.

Let's start with part one.

What does a conditional sentence in Arabic consist of?

In Arabic, a conditional sentence (جُمْلةُ الشَّرْطِ) con­sists of three things:

  1. The condition (الشَّرْطُ) or if-clause. This is the first part of the sentence, the subordinate clause (Nebensatz), also called protasis.
  2. The answer (الْجَوابُ), also called complement, consequent to the condition, main sentence, apo­dosis. Another term is الْجَزاءُ which literally means re­ward; punish­ment or penalty and is often translated as final clause. For some readers, الْجَزاءُ might be easier to remember because the Arabic expres­sion for penalty kick in soc­cer is ضَرْبَةُ جَزاءٍ. Important: the جَوابُ الشَّرْطِ does not have a place in إِعْرابٌ – you don't need to worry about cases or moods or place values (لا مَحَلَّ لَها مِن الْإِعْرابِ).
  3. Both parts are linked (we could also say bound) by a condi­tional device or word (كَلِمةٌ شَرْطِيّةٌ). Don't get con­fused by the Eng­lish term condi­tional “par­ticle” – in Arabic such words can be a حَرْفٌ or a اِسْمٌ.

The choice of a suitable conditional word depends on the re­lationship between the two parts of the condi­tional sen­tence.

You need to check whether there is a real condition or whether the hypo­thetical situa­tion is possible or impos­sible. The subordi­nate clause (الشَّرْطُ) and the main clause (الْجَوابُ) take the place of a single sentence.

Why do we call such sentences conditional sentences?

Because the ac­tual validity of a state­ment is “conditioned” by another statement which is given along with it. The information in the second (final) clause has no va­lidity in itself (عَلاقةٌ عِلِّيّةٌ) without the restriction in the subordi­nate clause. It may be the situation that the meaning of the second part (جَوابٌ) is in­cluded in the first part already.

Notice: Sometimes the condi­tion is pure temporal (زَمَنِيّةٌ). We get this situa­tion if we link both parts with لَمّا (when) or كُلَّما (whenever). For example:

Whenever Zayd appears, ‘Amr is travel­ing. (Every time Zayd comes, ‘Amr leaves.)

كُلَّما حَضَرَ زَيْدٌ سافِرٌ عَمْرٌو = .لَمّا حَضَرَ زَيْدٌ سافِرٌ عَمْرٌو

The relationship of both parts does not depend on a condition. The presence or com­ing of Zayd is not the reason for the traveling of ‘Amr.

Does the first part of a conditional sentence need a verb?

Yes, it does. We need a فِعْلُ الشَّرْطِ.

The idea of a condition (شَرْطٌ) includes the re­quirement of an ac­tion/event (حَدَثٌ) leading to whatever result. Thus, there has to be a verb – a complete, declinable verb (فِعْلٌ مُتَصَرِّفٌ). It cannot be an inert or static verb (فِعْلٌ جامِدٌ) like عَسَى (perhaps) or لَيْسَ (= ). What about كانَ (to be)? That's possible if you put it immediately after the conditional word.

The main sentence (الْجَوابُ), of course, may be of any nature!

The fol­lowing sen­tence is incorrect because a can't form the condition or subordinate clause (شَرْطٌ) in Arabic.

impossible in ArabicIf you succeed (are succeed­ing), I will reward you.إِنْ أَنْتَ ناجِحٌ فَسَوْفَ أُكافِئكَ

However, there are exceptions when a nominal sentence may be pla­ced after لَوْ. The following example is a line of the famous Arab Christian poet ‘Adīy ibn Zayd (عَدِيُّ بْنُ زَيْدٍ) who lived in the 6th cen­tury in al-Hīra (الْحِيرة‎), an ancient city in located south of Kūfa (الْكُوفة‎) in present-day Iraq. He died in 587/35 BH.

If my throat had trouble swallowing due to lack of water (dehydration), I would take water to me like someone choking.

لَوْ بِغَيْرِ الْماءِ حَلْقِي شَرِقٌ كُنْتُ كَالْغَصّانِ بِالْماءِ اعْتِصارِي

A remark on اعْتَصَرَ which conveys to press out, squeeze out something. The expression اعْتَصَرَ بالماءِ means to swallow the water by little and little in order that some food by which he was choked might be made to descend easily in his throat. (شَرِبَهُ قَلِيلًا قَلِيلًا لِيُسِيغَ ما غَصَّ بِهِ مِن طَعامٍ).

➢ Usually the construction لَوْ أَنَّ instead of لَوْ alone is used if you have a nominal sentence involved because أَنَّ itself has some verbal force. This often happens when you deal with “inverted verbal sentences” in which you have a construction consisting of a subject followed by a verb. An­other fine option would be to use كانَ after لَوْ.

The jussive mood

The term jussive is based on the Latin word jubeō: to order, to command. The corresponding Arabic term, مَجْزُومٌ, literally means cut short; clipped. In grammar, it denotes with deleted ending. So where is the conceptual bridge between the Western and Arabic term?

Let's start with the technical part. Elision (جَزْمٌ) describes a grammatical situation that requires to cut the end of the present tense verb (الْمُضارِعُ). We achieve that by using سُكُونٌ. If there is a weak letter involved (حَرْفُ عِلّةٍ), we drop و or ي to mark this .

Now let's look at the practical application. When do we use the jussive mood (مَجْزُومٌ)? When you see a مَجْزُومٌ-ending,

  • probably there is a connection to the meaning of should;
  • maybe there is a command involved (imperative);
  • maybe the sentence has a conditional meaning;

Important to know: The jussive mood (مَجْزُومٌ) does not occur by itself. It has to be induced by certain devices, so-called particles of elision (حَرْفُ جَزْمٍ). They may even have enough power to influence two verbs (often conditional sentences). We will check them in part two of our series.

Here is an overview:

if; even ifإِنْ
that whichما
what aأَيُّ
in whatever wayكَيْفَما
in what timeأَيّانَ
(c) Arabic for Nerds

Which conditional devices do not trigger the jussive mood?

We call such particles غَيْرُ الْجازِمةِ. It comes down to four devices:


Why is the second verb in the jussive mood?

The jussive mood (مَجْزُومٌ) of the verb expresses the conditional meaning. However, the reason why both verbs in a conditional sentence may be in the jussive mood is nothing but trivial.

Grammarians disagree about which operator/regent causes the مَجْزُومٌ-mood (jussive) in the second verb of conditional clauses. The dispute goes back to the early times of Arabic grammar.

The Basra school (الْبَصْرِيُّونَ) claimed that the con­ditional particle affects both verbs; in other words, the conditio­nal par­ticle governs two verbs in the state of جَزْم.

Other scholars suggested a kind of domino effect. The first verb gov­erns the second one. So, the conditional particle triggers the مَجْزُومٌ-mood in the first verb, and this verb, in turn, governs the following verb in that state.

This is similar to what the grammarians of Kūfa (الْكُوفِيُّونَ) sug­gested. The verb expressing the main clause/comple­ment/consequence (جَوابٌ) is governed in the جَزْمٌ by its proximity (مَجْزُومٌ بِالْجَوارِ) to the first verb that describes the condition.

For this reason, the Kūfa grammarians were convinced that if the subject of the first verb is placed after the verb, then the second verb should be used in the indicative mood (مَرْفُوعٌ) because the “proxim­ity” to the first verb is ruined.

If you come to me, Zayd will respect you.إِنْ تَأْتِنِي زَيْدٌ يُكْرِمُكَ

The Basrans, on the other hand, said that this would not interrupt the gover­nance – which means that the second verb should also be مَجْزُومٌ.

Note that I cover all these topics in more detail in my book Arabic for Nerds 2 and in parts also in Arabic for Nerds 1.

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To be continued…

  • Part two is about the conditional words (mainly إن and إذا).
  • Part three is about the Fa' (ف) and the appropriate tenses.

Picture credit (header): Isaque Pereira ; Pexels

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