Sunday, September 8, 2019

Conditional と

WIP : this article is incomplete and might change in the unforeseeable future.
In Japanese, the conditional to と refers to the to と particle when it's used as a conjunction. That's because it often translates to "if X, Y," or "when X, Y."

For example: hashiru to tsukareru 走る疲れる, means "if [I] run, [I] get tired," or "when [I] run, [I] get tired."


The basic usage of the conditional to と is to express a logical consequence of an act. If the subordinate event before the conjunction is realized, the main event after the conjunction is consequently realized, too.
  • botan wo osu to bakuhatsu suru
    If [you] press the button, [it] explodes.
  • fuyu ni naru to samuku naru
    If [it] becomes summer, [it] becomes cold.
    When [it] is summer, [it] will be cold.
  • sou kangaeru to fukanou janai
    If [you] think that way, [it] isn't improbable.
    Looking at things at that way, [it] isn't impossible. (it = something you plan to do.)


The conditional to と is also used to report something that's observed immediately after doing something. This is particularly used with unexpected occurrences.

In this case, it's no longer conditional: there's no "if" about it, it already occurred. Nevertheless, people generally call all usages of the conjunctive to と the "conditional と," so here it is:
  • furi-kaeru to yuurei ga ita
    When [I] looked over my shoulder, there was a ghost.
    [I] look over my shoulder, and then: there was a ghost.
  • hako wo akeru to, daiya no yubiwa ga haitte-ita
    When [I] opened the box, a diamond ring was inside.
    [I] open the box, and then: a diamond ring was inside.
  • sora wo miru to taiyou ga kiete-ita
    When [I] looked at the sky, the sun had disappeared.
    [I] look at the sky, and then: the sun had disappeared.
  • gakkou ni iku to, yasumi datta
    When [I] went to the school, [it] was "rest."
    [I] went to the school, and then: [it] was "rest."
    • yasumu 休む
      To rest. To stop doing something.
    • In the case above, yasumi means the school was closed, at rest, resting, because it's a holiday or something.


Although to と is generally used when the consequence only happens once, it can also be used if something keeps happening following the subordinate event.
  • mai-asa okiru to koohii wo nomu
    Every day when [I] wake up, [I] drink coffee.
  • mai-ban nemuru to onaji yume wo mitsudukeru
    Every night when [I] sleep, [I] keep seeing the same dream.


Grammatically, the function the conjunction depends on the tense of the verb of the main clause.
  • Non-pastとNon-past.
    Unrealized occurrence.
  • Non-pastとPast.
    Realized occurrence.

When a non-past verb is in the main clause, that means the event hasn't been realized yet, hasn't occurred yet, so the sentence becomes more of a premonition of what will happen. In other words, the "conditional" to と:
  • benkyou shinai to koukai suru zo
    If [you] don't study [you] will regret it.

Above, koukai suru is in the non-past tense, therefore, you haven't "regretted" it yet, but you will "regret" it in the future.
  • furi-kaeru to yuurei ga iru kamoshirenai
    If [I] look over [my] shoulder, there might be a ghost [behind me].
  • furi-kaeru to yuurei ga ita!
    [I] look over [my] shoulder, and then: there was a ghost!

The sentences above have the existential verb iru いる in its non-past form, "there is," "there will be," "there would be," and then in the past form ita いた, "there was."

In both sentences, its observed a ghost is behind you, but in the first sentence that's a hypothesis: maybe you'll see if you turn around, while in the second case it's already been realized: you looked around and you saw it.

Although non-past is generally hypothetical, there are cases where non-past isn't future, but present. For example, when combined with a copula:
  • yoku miru to hen desu
    If [I] look at [it] well, [it] is weird.
    Upon closer inspection, [it] is weird.
  • yoku miru to hen deshita
    [I] look at [it] well, and then: [it] was weird.
    Upon closer inspection, [it] was weird.

Both sentences above are perfectly fine, but the first one is more common. You look at something and say, "yep, that's weird." This is present, non-past. The past tense would be only used when telling something that happened in the past: when I inspected it further, it was indeed weird.

Note that in any case, the verb of the subordinate clause must be in non-past tense. You can't say this, for example:
  • *yoku mita to

In this case, you use the ~tara ~たら form, which is another conditional.

vs. ~たら

The difference between the conditionals to と and ~tara ~たら is that to と is only used when the main event is expected to occur following or in consequence to the subordinate event.

The ~tara ~たら form doesn't have such restriction, so most of the time ~tara ~たら is used, not to と.

To understand this better, let's see an example:
  • tenki ga yokattara, kouen ni ikou ka?
    If the weather is good, let's good to the park?
  • *tenki ga ii to, kouen ni ikou ka?

The first thing to note about the sentence above, is that: tenki ga yokatta means "the weather was good," in the past, compared to right now. However, yokattara isn't in the past compared to now, it's in the past compared to the main event.

For example, you could say:
  • ashita wa tenki ga yokattara...
    If, tomorrow, the weather is good... [let's go to the park].

Naturally, "tomorrow" is the future from now. But the "weather being good" precedes the event "go to the park," so yokattara can still be used.

The second thing to note is that whether you're going to the park or not isn't absolute. The sentence asks the listener to decide, or agree, with going to the park tomorrow. If they disagree, they won't go.

Therefore, the weather simply being good doesn't automatically means we're going to the park. The main clause isn't necessarily true if the subordinate clause is true, so we can't use to と. Compare with:
  • tenki ga ii to kibun ga ii
    If the weather is good, the feeling is good.
    [I] feel nice when the weather is nice.

In the sentence above, "the weather is good" being true leads to "the feeling is good" being true. One thing is the logical conclusion of the other.

Observe that to と doesn't put much emphasis on temporality. That is, with ~tara ~たら, the subordinate event happens BEFORE the main event. But with feeling good, we could say that both things happen at the same time: as the weather improves, my mood improves too.

Sometimes both patterns feel perfectly valid. In general, to と is used to warn that something will happen if you do or don't do something, while ~tara ~たら is used in basically every other situation.

  • ippai taberu to futoru yo
    If [you] eat a lot [you] will get fat.
  • gakkou ni ittara dare mo inakatta
    When [I] went to school, there was nobody there.

Above, you can replace taberu to with tabettara and ittara with iku to.

vs. Quoting と

The difference between the conditional to と and the quoting particle to と troubles many beginners. That's because, syntactically, they're identical:
  • korosareru to shinu
    If [you] are killed, [you] die.
  • korosareru to iu
    It's called: being killed.
  • korosareru to itta
    [He] said [he] would be killed.
  • korosareru to omou
    [I] think [I] will be killed.
  • korosareru to omotta
    [I] thought [I] was going to be killed.

In practice, however, you're very unlikely to have a situation where the conditional to と and the quoting to と are ambiguous.

Quoting particles like to と are only used with a very specific group of verbs. The verb must be about reading, or writing, or talking. or listening, or thinking, or calling, or something like that, which involves referring to phrases in their literal forms.

I said "potato." I wrote "potato." I read "potato." It was a called a "potato." I thought: "potato!" And so on.

All of the verbs that take a quoting particle require a quoted argument or a direct object. Since the to と particle is a conjunction, it separates clauses in two, like this:
  • {subordinate arguments}と{main arguments}

If you said just "read," for example, you'd be missing "what" you read. That's an argument of the verb. And the sentence wouldn't make sense:
  • okiru to yomu
    When [I] wake up, [I] read. (read what?)

Although that's grammatically allowed in Japanese, you're more likely to see something like this:
  • okiru to hon wo yomu
    When [I] wake up, [I] read a book.

The rare occasion where you can end up with both functions is in a sentence like this:
  • "kaete ii" to kiku to "ii yo" to kotaeta
    When [I] asked [him] "can [I] go home?" [he] answered: "yes."
    • ii いい can be used to say "okay."
    • kaette ii
      Going home is okay?
      Can I go home?
    • ii yo
      It's okay.
      Yes. You can go home.

Note that the to と particle also has other functions, and there are cases where the syntax matches both quoting and conditional, but is neither of them. For example:
  • benkyou shiyou to suru
    To try to study.
  • benkyou shiyou to shite-iru
    To be trying to study.

Sentences in the format ~ou to suru ~oうとする feature the adverbial function of the to と particle. Not the conditional function, nor the quoting function.

The phrases ni suru, to suru mean to deliberately "make something so." Above, someone is deliberately trying to make "to go study," benkyou shiyou, happen. In other words, they're trying to study. This is neither a condition nor a quote. It's an adverb.

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