If or when?

When I see my friend or if I see my friend? When I visited my brother or if I visited my brother? Is there always a difference between if and when, and if so, how do I know which to use? This is one of the most common question my students ask. In many languages, there is just one word for both, so it can be confusing. Here are some tips to help you remember when to use if or when.

Is it always true?

If you are describing something that is always true, you can use if or when and the meaning is the same. Both parts of the sentence should use the present simple. For example:

  • When I’m tired, I go to bed. / If I’m tired, I go to bed.
  • When they win, they’re happy. / If they win, they’re happy.
  • When the price increases, we sell less. / If the price increases, we sell less.

Is it certain?

If something is definitely going to happen in the future, we use when. In these sentences, we’re sure that these things will happen and we’re describing what will happen in that situation.For example,

  • When I see my friend, I’ll give her the information.
  • When I give the presentation, I’ll speak loudly.
  • When he goes to France, he’ll visit the Eiffel Tower.

If I’m not sure something will happen, we use if. All of these sentences talk about things that may or may not happen. For example:

  • If I see my friend, I’ll ask her about her new job. (Maybe I will see her; maybe I won’t.)
  • If I give the presentation, I’ll prepare well. (I don’t know if I will give the presentation yet.)
  • If he goes to France, he’ll visit Nice. (He hasn’t decided yet if he’s going to France.)

If we swap if and will, the meaning changes:

  • If I see my manager, I’ll ask her. (I don’t know if I’ll see her.)
  • When I see my manager, I’ll ask her. (I know I’ll see her.)

Is it the past or just an idea?

If we are talking about something that really happened in the past, we use when.

  • When I was at school, I liked art classes.
  • When I lived in Scotland, we often went to the beach.
  • When I visited my friend, we went to a great restaurant.

However, if we’re talking about unreal actions (in the past, present or future), we need if. These sentences describes ideas that didn’t or probably won’t happen. Here are some examples:

  • If I won the lottery, I would buy a house.
  • If I took a plane, I would get there quicker.
  • If I had read the email, I wouldn’t have made the mistake.
  • If I hadn’t been late, my boss would be angry.

Summary

So, to summarise, we use when to talk about something real in the past or certain in the future. We use if to talk about about things that are not certain or not real. We can use either if or when to talk about things that are always true.


Do you have any more tips to help you remember when to use if or when? Do you have other questions about if sentences? Leave them in the comments below!

How to get the most out of online language classes

Have your language lessons moved online? Or have you started taking a new course with an online platform? Learning online is becoming more and more popular, and in many areas it may be the only way to take classes at the moment. However, it can feel a little different to a face-to-face course, so I’ve put together a checklist to help you get the most out of your online classes.

Practice makes perfect

Before starting online lessons, check what platform you’re going to use. Find out if you need to download any software and if possible, test it before the lesson. There are also lots of YouTube tutorials on how to use platforms such as Skype, Zoom, Webex or Hangouts.

Equipment

If you can, it’s best to use a laptop or desktop computer. The screen is bigger and it’s easier to type or share documents. However, a phone or tablet will also work well with most platforms.

Headsets can help to make sure you can hear your teacher well and they can hear you. They also reduce background noise. The headset that came with your mobile phone is fine for this!

If possible, connect to the internet with an ethernet cable rather than wifi. This will make the connection more stable by linking your computer directly to the router.

Lights, camera, action!

It will help your teacher if you use a camera. They can see if you understand well, and it makes the lesson more natural. If you’re in a group, it’s also nice to see your classmates. It’s best to sit somewhere light, and position your camera at eye-level. Don’t sit too close to the camera.

Preparation is key

Aim to come to the ‘classroom’ five minutes before the lesson starts. That way, if you have problems connecting, you won’t lose any lesson time. This is especially important for the first online lesson.

Close any documents or programmes you don’t need as they can slow down your device.

Prepare your workspace as you would if you went to class: make sure you have paper and a pen, a drink, and switch your phone to silent.

Keep calm and carry on

Don’t worry if you have problems with the platform or your device. Often leaving the platform and coming back again solves the problem. If there’s a problem with your device, you could try restarting it. If the connection is bad, try using an ethernet cable or turning the router off and on again.

If you can’t hear the teacher or other students well, try using the chat box to ask for help or give others tips. Here are some useful phrases to use in online classes.

Organisation

Check with your teacher which notes they will send you, so you know what you should write down during the lesson. Your teacher may send you notes or homework after your lesson, so it’s a good idea to have a folder where you save all these documents together. Some students like to print them out too.

Staying in touch

Check you know how to contact your teacher or school outside of the lessons. This is important in case you have questions, can’t come to a lesson or have technical problems.

If you don’t already have one, you could set up a group chat on an instant messaging app for everyone in your class. This is a good way to catch up on anything you miss in class or homework. It’s also great for practising the language with your classmates.


Learning online may feel different to face-to-face lessons, but it can be a great opportunity to stay in touch with others and keep learning while many of us are at home.

Do you have any other tips for online language classes?

Present perfect or past simple?

I have gone or I went? I saw or I have seen? How do I talk about experiences in the past? And how do I use for to describe past events? The English language is famous for its different tenses, and it can be difficult to know when to use which. Here are some questions we can ask to decide if we should use the present perfect or the past simple.

Form

As a quick reminder, this is how we form the past simple:

  • I visited my friend. (Regular verbs add -ed; irregular verbs have different forms, e.g. went.)
  • I didn’t visit my brother.
  • Did you visit your friend?

To ask questions and form negative sentences, we need the helping verb did or didn’t. In these sentences we use the base form of the main verb; we don’t need both verbs in the past.

The present perfect looks like this:

  • I have visited Japan. (As with the past simple, regular verbs add -ed, irregular verbs have different forms, e.g. gone.)
  • I haven’t visited Thailand.
  • Have you visited Japan?

In every sentence in the present perfect, we always need the helping verb have or has. These are often shortened to ‘ve or ‘s, especially when we speak. We also need the past participle of the main verb (also known as the third form).

Is the action still happening now?

We use the present perfect to talk about things that are still happening now.

  • I lived in Rome in 2015. (not ongoing – I don’t live there now)
  • I have lived in Madrid since 2016. (ongoing – I still live there now)
  • He worked at the company last summer. (not ongoing – he doesn’t work there now)
  • He has worked at the company for one year. (ongoing – he still works there now)
  • We played tennis at that club for two years. (not ongoing – we don’t play now)
  • We have played tennis at this club for six months. (ongoing – we still play)

Is the time point important?

We often use the present perfect to talk about experiences and things that have happened at some point in our lives. Here, the time is not important. However, when we talk about a specific event or give a time point (e.g. yesterday, last week, in 2018), we use the past simple.

  • I have visited Japan. (at some point but the time is not important)
  • I visited Japan in 2013. (specific event)
  • Have you ever been to Canada? (at some point)
  • I went to Canada last summer. (specific event)
  • I have seen the new James Bond film. (at some point)
  • I saw it at the cinema with my friend. (specific event)

Can we see the results of the action now?

If that action is important for the present, we often use the present perfect. For example:

  • I lost my keys. (not relevant for now)
  • I have found my keys. (I have them now)
  • Last week I baked a cake. (not relevant for now)
  • I have baked some brownies. (they are here now)
  • I passed my driving test first time. (not relevant for now)
  • I have passed my exam. (this is news now)

Are there signal words?

There are some words that we often use with either the present perfect or past simple. These include:

  • Present perfect: since, already, yet, just, ever
  • Past simple: last week, yesterday, last week, in 2018, in February, on Tuesday

The preposition for is often used with both the present perfect and the past simple, as well as with other tenses. It is used to show how something lasts, for example:

  • I have studied French for two years. (ongoing – I still study French)
  • I studied French for two years. (not ongoing – I don’t study French now)

These are some of the main things to think about when we’re not sure if we should use the present perfect or past simple. Do you have any other tips to help you remember which tense to use?

Building negative sentences

So you’ve mastered the tenses, you know the difference between the present simple, perfect and continuous, but negative sentences are still difficult? When do we use an extra helping verb and when can just add not? Here is a brief guide to building negative sentences in English.

Present simple

When we form negative sentences in the present and past simple, we need a helping verb as well as the word not followed by the main verb. In the present, we use do or does:

I do not like chocolate. / I don’t like chocolate.

He does not like chocolate. / He doesn’t like chocolate.

do(es) + not + base form of main verb (no -s, -ing or to)

As we can see from these examples, we can shorten do not or does not to don’t or doesn’t. We do this a lot when we speak or write informally.

It’s not important what the main verb is, we nearly always need the helping verb to make a negative sentence. Sometimes we can have the verb do twice in once sentence, once as the helping verb and once as the main verb:

She does not do her homework. / She doesn’t do her homework.

This rule also applies to the verb have:

We do not have time. / We don’t have time.

Past simple

It’s the same with the past simple too, but this time we use did not or the short form didn’t:

I did not go to the meeting. / I didn’t go to the meeting.

We did not do the work. / We didn’t do the work.

He did not eat at home. / He didn’t eat at home.

did + not + base form of main verb (no -s, -ing, -ed or to)

The helping verb stays the same here; we don’t need to change it for he/she/it. Another important point to remember is that we don’t need to put the main verb in the past. The did is enough to show we’re talking about the past.

Exceptions

The only time we don’t need a helping verb with the simple tenses are with the verb be or modal verbs (e.g. can, must, should, might, may, will, shall, etc).

I am not at school. / I’m not at school.

He was not in Spain. / He wasn’t in Spain.

We must not open the door. / We mustn’t open the door.

They cannot pass the test. / They can’t pass the test.

She should not drive. / She shouldn’t drive.

Here, we simply add not after be or the modal verb.

Present continuous

Because we already have a helping verb in the sentence, we just add not between the helping verb and the main verb:

I am not going to the party. / I‘m not going to the party.

We are not giving the presentation. / We‘re not giving the presentation.

He is not learning Japanese. / He‘s not learning Japanese.

Other past tenses

Similarly in other past tenses, we already have a helping verb in the sentence (a form of either have or be). This means we just add not after the helping verb and we’re good to go.

We have not been to the cinema. / We haven’t been to the cinema.

I was not talking to my friend. / I wasn’t talking to my friend.

He had not visited Greece before. / He hadn’t visited Greece before.

Future tenses

When we use the helping verb will, we also just add not to the sentence:

I will not go the conference. / I won’t go the conference.

It will not rain tomorrow. / It won’t rain tomorrow.

Summary

The general rule is that if we already have a helping verb in a sentence, we just add not after the helping verb to make a sentence negative. If there is no helping verb (like in the present or past simple), we need to add one (e.g. do or did). There are, however, some exceptions, such as with the verb be or modal verbs.


Do you have other helpful tips for building negative sentences? Or do you have more questions? Feel free to post them in the comments below.