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Let's learn to use たら and なら!

Japanese has a number of conditional forms such as と、ば、たら、and なら. They all have different usages, but the last two, なら and たら are so similar, they deserve special attention.

たら

なら

What is the difference between たら and なら?!

In many cases, たら and なら are more or less interchangeable:

  • Both mean “if” or show some condition: if this, then that.
  • Both can be used for giving advice: if you do this, then why don’t you try that?

But…

  • They are formed differently in sentences.
  • There is usually a slight change in nuance if both can be used.
  • And in some cases one or the other cannot be used.


To keep things straight, in this article, I’ll always put the たら example first. Since these two words are so similar in sound as well as meaning, it can be a challenge keeping them apart.


Construction

First, let’s learn how to form each of them in sentences:

たら

if; after; when~; once~

  • Verb た form + ら [()たら]
  • Noun + だった + ら [日本人(にほんじん)だったら]
  • な adjective + だった + ら [(しず)かだったら]
  • い adjective – + かった + ら [(あたら)しかったら]

なら

if; in the case of; if it is ... we are talking about; regarding

  • Verb (dictionary form) + (の*) + なら  [()なら]
  • Noun + なら [日本人(にほんじん)なら]
  • な adjective +  なら [(しず)なら]
  • い adjective + (の) + なら [(あたら)しいなら]

* the の is often omitted in speech or changed into a ん sound

Use this as a reference. If you don’t like memorizing tables, don’t worry. I don’t either. I think it is easiest to learn conjugation by memorizing a few useful phrases, and as you use the phrases, you’ll naturally get a feel for what is correct.


■  Difference in Nuance:

Here’s an example where both mean basically the same thing with only a slight difference in nuance:

コーヒーを()だら()()めるよ。

When (once) you drink coffee, you’ll wake up.

コーヒーを()なら()()めるよ。

If you drink coffee, you’ll wake up.

たら is often used to refer to a single instance (more on this below) and if that instance doesn't occur, what follows won't occur. In this case, “when the coffee is enjoyed.”

And なら is referring to “drinking coffee” in general: “If you drink coffee in general, then… “

As a quick and dirty tip, it *may* help to "translate" each as follows:

  • たら as "once... then..." or "when this happens... then..." [used often to describe a singular occurrence]
  • なら as "If it's xxx we're talking about, then..." [used to speak more generally]


But there are times where one can be used but the other can't. This is especially true with:


たら and Time Order

たら is not a time traveler. With たら , the time order must be sequential.

Think of this as an A たら B sentence:

If A (たら)  occurs, then B can happen--but it must happen after A occurs.

With たら, B has to occur after A. Or to put it another way, A has to occur in order for B to occur and B will always occur after A.

The time line goes from left to right sequentially as you read the sentence.


In contrast... なら can be a time traveler!

With なら, however, the time order is irrelevant. It could go either way.

A (なら) then do B occurs either before or after A.


Let’s look at a few examples regarding the time order.

Going through examples and even remembering a few will help keep things straight.

出掛(でか)けるなら着替(きが)えます。

If we are going out, I will change my clothes.

In this case, “I will change my clothes” will obviously occur before “going out.”

Because B occurs before A, it would be strange to use たら in this case.

This would be unnatural Japanese: X  出掛(でか)たら着替(きが)えます


I’m not sure if this is actually true, but it might help to think of the たら as a past event and therefore B cannot time travel before the past A event. たら is, after all, formed using the past tense form of a verb, and therefore you can think of 「出掛(でか)けたら」 as “the moment or act of leaving” instead of “if.” It would be a little strange in English to say, “The moment when I’m leaving, I’ll change.”

Another example. First, let’s look at a sentence where both たら and なら can work:

(あめ)がふったら()かけません。

If it rains, (I) won’t go out.

[When (Once) it rains, I won't go out.]

(あめ)なら()かけません。

If rain, (I) won’t go out.

[If it's rain we're talking about, I won't go out.]

[This could also be 雨がふるなら (if it rains)]

Both mean basically the same thing: “If it rains, I won’t go out.”

Notice the time order. A (if it rains) then B happens (I won’t go out after it starts to rain). It's sequential so either can be used.

But what if want to say the non-sequential “If it’s going to rain in the afternoon, let’s leave in the morning.”? For example, you just heard tomorrow’s weather report, and it will be sunny in the morning but rainy in the afternoon.

In this case, A (the condition: if it rains in the afternoon) occurs after B (leave in the morning). Therefore たら can’t be used. Why? Because たら can’t time travel. たら has to be used in a sequential timeline.

X 午後(ごご)(あめ)がふったら(あさ)()かけましょう。 (strange)

Once (or when) it rains in the afternoon, let’s leave in the morning. (strange)

But the following is okay:

O 午後(ごご)(あめ)()のなら(あさ)()かけましょう。

If it’s going to rain in the afternoon, let’s leave in the morning.
[The の is optional here but often used.]

Do you see how A occurs after B? Since たら isn't a time traveler, (but なら can be), you shouldn't use たら here.

Here’s another example of time travel (A occurs after B).

X  コンビニにいったら財布(さいふ)(わす)れないで。 (strange)

convenience store | to | if go | wallet | (direct object marker) | don’t forget

Once (or when) you go to the convenience store, don't forget your wallet. (strange)


O コンビニに()なら財布(さいふ)(わす)れないで。

convenience store | to | to go | if | wallet | (direct object marker) | don’t forget

If you go to the convenience store, don't forget your wallet.

You want to not forget your wallet BEFORE leaving for the convenience store.


たら and the singular event

たら often refers to a singular event, a one-off occurrence: once some specific condition is met… when some condition is met.

Importantly, if the A phrase doesn't occur, the B phrase won't occur.

When the water boils:

沸騰(ふっとう)たら(みず)()れてください。

When it boils, please add water.

[Indicates a singular moment when the water boils and only IF it boils should you add water.]

If you were to use なら, it might indicate there is a chance the water won’t boil and doesn’t necessarily refer to a singular event.

A few other examples of たら and the singular event:

今日(きょう)仕事(しごと)()わったら、ゲームしましょう。

When today’s work ends, let’s play a game.

[Indicates a singular moment when work ends and only then can he play a game]


風呂(ふろ)がわいたら(おし)えてください。

Once bath is ready, let me know. Let me know when the bath is ready.

[a singular event—that of the bath water being ready—is met and then the speaker wants to be told]


Here’s one more example with a similar in meaning sentence using なら:

(はん)()わったら宿題(しゅくだい)をしてください。

Once you eat, do your homework.

[Indicates a singular moment when you finish eating and only then he should do his homework.]

宿題(しゅくだい)をするなら、ご(はん)(あと)にしてください。

If you do your homework, do it after you eat.


Giving Advice or Opinion

Both たら and なら can be followed with advice or opinions, but just remember たら must have an advice or opinion that occurs AFTER the A condition is met.

日本(にほん)()たら京都(きょうと)()ったほうがいい。

If (once) you go to Japan, you should go to Kyoto.

日本(にほん)()なら京都(きょうと)()ったほうがいい。

If you go to Japan, you should go to Kyoto.

Both たら and なら could be used here since the advice (going to Kyoto) will occur AFTER the condition is met (going to Japan).

However, how about this example?

日本(にほん)()なら日本語(にほんご)勉強(べんきょう)したほうがいい。

If you go to Japan, you should study Japanese.

The B (study Japanese) advice is intended to be done BEFORE the A condition (go to Japan) is met. Therefore, you can’t use たら.

Do you remember why? That’s right たら can’t time travel but なら can.



■  なら for emphasis and contrast

More so than たら, なら is also used to emphasize the previous word and show contrast.

If you are asked if you have some time today to do some work, you could say:

(いま)なら、いいよ。

If it’s now, it’s okay.

The implication is that later you will be busy, but if the request can be done now ((いま)) you have time. It’s emphasizing and contrasting the now (when you can) against the later (when you can’t).

Here’s a situation where your host asks if you would like something to drink.

(なに)()む?

Want something to drink?

(ちゃ)なら()む。

If you have tea, I’ll have a drink.

In this example, you are emphasizing that “Tea” is acceptable and contrasting it against other drinks that may not be acceptable to you.


■  Suggested examples to memorize:

This is all very confusing, but if you memorize a few of the correct examples above as well as the following common (almost cliché) examples below, you’ll eventually get a feel for what is correct.

あなたならできる!

 If it’s you we are talking about, you can do it.

田中(たなか)さんなら大丈夫でしょう。

(In the case of) Tanaka (, he) will be fine.

それなら

In that case; if that condition is met

やってみたら

Why don't you try?

[Since this is speaking about a specific event たら is used.]

あなたが()なら(わたし)()きます。

If you go, I’ll go too.

[In this case, you could use たら but the なら adds emphasis and contrast and kind of implies this is the only case in which “I” would go. I’ll go only if you go. ]


Lastly, let’s look at the often heard anti-drunk driving police slogan which uses both たら and なら:

()だら()るな。()なら()むな。

If you've had a drink, don't drive. If you are going to drive, don't drink.

The ()んだら means, “if you have already had a drink.” (Remember たら often indicates a singular event.) The ()るなら emphasizes the intent to drive.

In conclusion, remember these few things to help keep things straight:

■  たら is often used with singular events whereas なら is more general

■  たら can’t time travel. Use only with sequential If/then events

■  なら is often used for emphasis and showing contrast

And lastly, it *may* help to "translate" each as follows:

  • たら as "once... then..." or "when this happens... then..." [used often to describe a singular occurrence]
  • なら as "If it's xxx we're talking about, then..." [used to speak more generally]


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