The Conjunctions ЕСЛИ and ЛИ "If"
The subordinating conjunction ли means "if" or "whether", e.g. Sam didn't say if/whether he would come. However, the Russian conjunction is a clitic, which means it does not have an accent and therefore must attach itself to a word that does have accent. For this reason, ли is always in the second position of the clause it marks, rather than in first position like other conjunctions. Moreover, the subordinate clause it introduces requires inverted word order; that is, the verb must be moved to the beginning of the subordinate clause and ли is attached to the end of it. All other words in the sentence remain in their normal positions.
The problem is that Russian has another conjunction meaning "if": если. The question then is, when do you use ли and when do you use если? Remember this:
The Russian 'If' Rule If in English you may use whether, in Russian you must use ли. Otherwise, use если
The same rule applies to the more dated variant of если, коли "if" and the semantic variant раз "once", e. g. Раз он придёт, мы будем веселиться Once he arrives, we'll have fun.
Here are a few examples to enjoy. Read them over carefully, comparing them with the translations and noting both the selection of ли and если and the word order of sentences containing the former.
Он ничего не скажет, если не хочет.
He won't say anything, if he doesn't want to.
Он не скажет, придёт ли он домой.
He won't say if/whether he will come home.
Маша прочтёт все стихи, если я скажу.
Masha will read all the poetry if I tell her to.
Я не уверен, причтёт ли она все стихи.
I'm not sure if/whether she will read the poetry.
Try Some Exercises
In the following exercises, choose the Russian sentence most closely expressing the sentiment of the English sentence above by clicking the corresponding radio button. If you choose the wrong sentence, the explanation box will tell you exactly what your mistake is, so that you may quickly correct it.
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© 1996 Robert Beard