Specifically talking about ば、なら、たら、and と here.

I just read Derek Schaab's excellent reply to this question on when to use the different forms of conditionals -- something I'm really struggling with at the moment. But that is a lot to remember when you're trying to select the correct expression in a conversation. I expect that most Japanese aren't even aware of these rules.

So I was wondering, are there simpler rules that get you the right answer most of the time, and, if you do use the wrong word, how much does it actually matter? Will you be completely misunderstood, shown to be the foreigner you are, or anything in between?

Any tips on how other people have approached this learning problem would be appreciated.


3 Answers 3


Edited in bold font

  1. An action in non-past tense in a なら clause is to succeed that of the main clause, and if you use it wrongly, people will misunderstand which happens before and which after. Past tense in なら clauses stands for if it's true or not.

  2. As long as you use なら correctly, たら is enough versatile to replace ~と and ~ば.

  3. You can't use たら for actions in realized past by the same subject with consistent volitionality. In short, you can say (a) 車に乗ったら 吐いてしまった (When I get on the car, I vomited), but not (b) * 車に乗ったら 運転した (When I get on the car, I drove it). (edit: If you wrongly use it, people misunderstand it's an imaginary conditional or a habitual past.)

  4. (off topic) Use とき for "when".

  • Your first point seems to contradict some of the examples in my link e.g. 旅行に行ったのなら、写真を見せてください Could you clarify this with some examples of good and bad usage please? Commented May 15, 2015 at 18:52
  • Sorry, I don't understand your first point about なら, could you provide an example of using it wrong?
    – rjh
    Commented May 19, 2015 at 23:30

People would figure out what you mean and forgive you because you're only a learner of Japanese, but you may get a few strange looks for some sentences.

The commenter's research study in your cited question, attributed to a study done in 1989 by Shinji Sanada also shows

もっと早く{起きると/起きれば/起きたら}よかった。 I should have woken up earlier.

  • Tokyo: 4% と; 94% ば; 2% たら
  • Osaka: 0% と; 20% ば; 78% たら

右に{行くと/行けば/行ったら}、ポストが見えます。 If you turn right, you can see a mailbox.

  • Tokyo: 75% と; 16% ば; 8% たら
  • Osaka: 4% と; 13% ば; 83% たら

This shows that in some cases, people will view things differently. But, there are cases where you'll confuse people by using the wrong one.

If you're using the Tokyo dialect, which I'll assume you are, note that only 2% of people use 〜たら in sentence 1. So it's uncommon. If you do interchange between them, you can generally get by because the sentence means nearly the same thing, but the subtle nuances between the options will exist. And yes, most people in Japan aren't really aware of the rules in my experience.

And there are sentences where you can't substitute them at all. It's worth using them as "normally" as you can. To do this, all you can do is hear as many examples as you can.

As for how to get used to it yourself, you won't get a sense for it from SE; try listening to radio, or as most people do with Japanese, watch Anime. Every time you're on the bus daydreaming, listen to Japanese. Every time you're washing the car but not doing anything else, listen to Japanese. Every time you've got an hour to spend during the day, listen to Japanese, even if only in the background.

This kind of goes with everything linguistic -- the more you use it, the faster you learn, even intuitively. You don't need to do it as obsessively as I described, but if you were to do it that obsessively, you'll learn it faster.

  • 1
    Realized that i forgot to talk about "simpler rules". I haven't found anything simpler than the ones in the link you provided. The only difference is that, as a programmer, I view なら as an if-then statement, if that helps (a lot of people on SE seem to be programmers). I didn't learn the rules much. After I understood the basic idea of what the rules were, I just decided to do what I said above and listen to Japanese for hours on end until I got it right.
    – sqrtbottle
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 9:35

After posting this question I found this link. Lessons 24 to 28 systematically introduce the conditionals and the reasons for choosing each one. Here's my attempt at a summary


Use when the main clause is an inevitable or uncontrollable result of the condition




ば is used for verbs and い-adjectives, and なら for (adjectival) nouns (the case of なら with verbs is covered below). This form allows the main clause to express commands, requests, volitionality etc.


Grammatically all と sentences can be changed to ば/なら sentences. However, と is used more for stating facts and ば/なら is used for emphasising the requirement e.g.


Is a statement of fact (wolves go hunting when it is dark). But in response to the question 'When do wolves go hunting?' the answer would be better phrased as


emphasizing the condition under which wolves go hunting.

These forms have a restriction that they cannot be used if the subject of the main and conditional clauses is the same when conditional clause is an action. If this restriction is a problem then you need...


The following sentence cannot use either と or ば/なら.


All the forms so far have the restriction that the condition must occur before the result in the main clause. If you need to lift this condition as well then you need to use (verb dict-form)+なら e.g


I think I'll stop there, because this is starting to become as long and confusing as anything else I've read. The link has much more detail.

  • Usually link-only answers are discouraged and a reasonable summary of linked content encouraged. If you don't want to summarize the content of these lesson, this might be better left as a comment on your question.
    – Earthliŋ
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 21:34
  • Aside from that, it was a good site to read anyway, though 私は(自分が もしも)鳥なら… and 私は(自分に)百万円があれば… are fine.
    – user4092
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 10:45
  • 1
    @Earthliŋ I've tried to summarise as suggested (a good way to learn) but bear in mind that it could be full of errors because I'm only a beginner. Commented May 16, 2015 at 12:33

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