736 - ~ば

[NDL #736] - JLPT N4: ~ば (if)

(Warning: This is one monster of a lesson. Take your time, please.)

In the last lesson, we braved the waters of Japanese conditionals.

Here, we continue that perilous journey, looking at ~ば.

In basic terms, ~ば is used when you want to say "if." It is often used when you are describing a conditional relationship that is constant (i.e. not momentary).

For example:

れんしゅう すれば、 だれでも できます。
Anyone can do it if they practice.
Literally: “practicing + if (one) does, + anyone + can do.”

We can describe the conditional relationship between "practicing" and "being able to do it" as constant because it is true (just about) all of the time (from the speaker's perspective).

Because ~ば can be used to describe general conditional relationships, you'll find that it appears in quite a few proverbs and sayings.

A famous example:

ちり も つもれば やま と なる。
Even dust piles up to become a mountain.
Literally: "dust / dirt + も + if (it) piles up + mountain + と + becomes."
Note: The meaning is that little things can have big consequences. For example, even just learning one new Japanese word per day (or reading one NDL!) will eventually add up to a lot of Japanese being known.

~ば is not exclusively used for constant/general conditional relationships.

It is still possible to use ~ば for a one-time condition (something that is only true at a certain point in time).

For example, a couple of coworkers (using formal language) might say:

どようび の のみかい に さんか する つもり です か?
Do you intend to go to the (drinking) party on Saturday?
Literally: “Saturday + の + drinking party + に + participation + do + intention + です + か?”

やすければ いきます が、 たかければ いきません。
If it's cheap, I'll go, but if it's expensive, I won't go.
Literally: “if it's cheap + go + but, + if it's expensive + won't go.”

🏙 Conjugation City 🏙

Put on your conjugation hat because there is a lot to cover here.

~ば can be used with VERBS (godan [Group I], ichidan [Group II], and irregular [Group III]), i-adjectives, and na-adjectives and NOUNS.


I am going to assume that you know the difference between godan, ichidan, and irregular verbs. If you don't, please review this lesson: [NDL #482] - Basics: Verb Types.

Here are some verbs in dictionary form...

Godan / Group I:
書く(かく // to write
行く(いく // to go
脱ぐ(ぬぐ // to take off [clothes]
話す(はなす // to speak; to talk
待つ(まつ // to wait
死ぬ(しぬ // to die
飛ぶ(とぶ // to fly
飲む(のむ // to drink
取る(とる // to take
買う(かう // to buy

Ichidan / Group II:
食べる(たべる // to eat
寝る(ねる // to sleep

Irregular / Group III:
勉強する(べんきょうする // to study
来る(くる // to come

In the case of godan verbs, we conjugate them into ~ば form by taking the final 'u' sound and changing it to an 'e' sound. Then we add .

So for 書く, we have:

書く → 書け- → 書け
かく → かけ- → かけ

Make sense? So here's how we'd conjugate all of the godan verbs we just saw...

Godan / Group I:
書けば(かけば // if one writes
行けば(いけば // if one goes
脱げば(ぬげば // if one takes off [clothes]
話せば(はなせば // if one speaks
待てば(まてば // if one waits
死ねば(しねば // if one dies
飛べば(とべば // if one flies
飲めば(のめば // if one drinks
取れば(とれば // if one takes
買えば(かえば // if one buys

For ichidan verbs, just take the final る and change it to れ, then add .

食べる → 食べれ- → 食べれ
たべる → たべれ- → たべれ

Thus, we have...

Ichidan / Group II:
食べれば(たべれば // if one eats
寝れば(ねれば // if one sleeps

Irregular verbs are the same as ichidan verbs in this case...

Irregular / Group III:
勉強する(べんきょうする // to study
→ 勉強すれべんきょうすれば // if one studies
来る(くる // to come
→ 来れくれば // if one comes

~ば can also be conjugated in the negative. To do this, you just take the present plain form negative conjugation of a verb, remove い, then add けれ.

Like this:

書く → 書かない → 書かな- → 書かなけれ
かく → かかない → かかな- → かかなけれ

So, here is the present plain form negative conjugation of each verb we've seen...

Godan / Group I:
書かない(かかない // not write
行かない(いかない // not go
脱がない(ぬがない // not take off [clothes]
話さない(はなさない // not speak
待たない(またない // not wait
死なない(しなない // not die
飛ばない(とばない // not fly
飲まない(のまない // not drink
取らない(とらない // not take
買わない(かわない // not buy

Ichidan / Group II:
食べない(たべない // not eat
寝ない(ねない // not sleep

Irregular / Group III:
勉強しない(べんきょうしない // not study
来ない(こない // not come

And the negative ~ば forms are...

Godan / Group I:
書かなければ(かかなければ // if one doesn't write
行かなければ(いかなければ // if one doesn't go
脱がなければ(ぬがなければ // if one doesn't take off [clothes]
話さなければ(はなさなければ // if one doesn't speak
待たなければ(またなければ // if one doesn't wait
死ななければ(しななければ // if one doesn't die
飛ばなければ(とばなければ // if one doesn't fly
飲まなければ(のまなければ // if one doesn't drink
取らなければ(とらなければ // if one doesn't take
買わなければ(かわなければ // if one doesn't buy

Ichidan / Group II:
食べなければ(たべなければ // if one doesn't eat
寝なければ(ねなければ // if one doesn't sleep

Irregular / Group III:
勉強しなければ(べんきょうしなければ // if one doesn't study
来なければ(こなければ // if one doesn't come


~ば can also be used with i-adjectives.

Here are a few in their dictionary form:

寒い(さむい // cold
欲しい(ほしい // wanted; wished for
高い(たかい // expensive; tall

We need to remove い and add けれ

寒ければ(さむければ // if it's cold
欲しければ(ほしければ // if it's wanted [wished for]
高ければ(たかければ // if it's expensive [tall]

To use ~ば with i-adjectives in the negative, we first need to put them into the negative present plain form:

寒くない(さむくない // not cold
欲しくない(ほしくない // not wanted [wished for]
高くない(たかくない // not expensive [tall]

Then remove the final い and add けれ

寒くなければ(さむくなければ // if it's not cold
欲しくなければ(ほしくなければ // if it's not wanted [wished for]
高くなければ(たかくなければ // if it's not expensive [tall]

NOUNS / na-adjectives

Perhaps the most confusing thing about ~ば is that when we want to use it with a noun or a na-adjective, it changes to なら or ならば

So we can take some nouns and na-adjectives:

暇(ひま // not busy; having free time; bored
真っ暗(まっくら // pitch black
男性(だんせい // male; men

...and then just add なら

暇なら(ひまなら // if one has free time
真っ暗なら(まっくらなら // if it's pitch black
男性なら(だんせいなら // if one is a male

...or ならば

暇ならば(ひまならば // if one has free time
真っ暗ならば(まっくらならば // if it's pitch black
男性ならば(だんせいならば // if one is a male

You might be worried that you'll get this mixed up with the なら that we just studied. I wouldn't worry about it too much. You'll rarely run into problems because of this overlap. In fact, I spent the last three years having forgotten that this overlap existed... until I had to write this lesson.

Note that the negative form of ~ば with nouns and na-adjectives is a bit special.

Add でなけれ to the end of them:

暇でなければ(ひまでなければ // if one doesn't have free time
真っ暗でなければ(まっくらでなければ // if it's not pitch black
男性でなければ(だんせいでなければ // if one is not a male

You may have just skimmed over the conjugation rules listed above. Or perhaps you pored over them in detail and started to feel stressed, started to feel like you'd never master all of these conjugation patterns.

I remember feeling like that, too. What I've found has helped me more than anything else in my studies, when it comes to conjugations, is drilling them over and over and over again.

Ideally you would do this with a teacher or tutor. But you can also do it on your own... though that requires quite a bit of willpower and discipline.

In any case, if you're regularly using Japanese, then at some point in the future all of the conjugations listed above will feel quite natural.

Have you forgotten all about how and when ~ば is used?

Well, it is a good choice when describing constant or general conditional rules, but it can also be used in specific situations.

To be honest, I'm not sure which of those descriptions we'd use for this next example:

もっと おおきい こえ で はなさなければ、 うしろ の ひと が きこえません よ。
If you don’t talk in a louder voice, the people in the back won’t be able to hear you.
Literally: “more + big + voice + で + if (you) don’t speak, + the back + の + person + が + cannot hear / is not audible + よ.”

Feel free to use it for habitual conditional situations, too:

わたし は さむければ まど を しめて ねます が、 さむくなければ まど を あけて ねます。
If it’s cold, I sleep with the window closed. But if it’s not cold, I sleep with the window open.
Literally: “I + は + if it’s cold + window + を + close (and) + sleep + but, + if it’s not cold + window + を + open (and) + sleep.”

And here's another example of a one-time conditional:

まちがえて おなじ ほん を にさつ かっちゃった。 もし ほしければ、 いっさつ あげる よ。
I accidentally bought two copies of the same book. If you’d like, I’ll give you one of them.
Literally: “make a mistake (and) + same + book + を + two books + (accidentally) bought. + if + if it’s wanted (by you), + one book + give + よ.”
Note: Adding もし just emphasizes the conditional nature of the sentence. It's used a lot when asking someone if they'd like to do or have something.

Are ~ば and ~たら interchangeable?

In many cases, yes. But it's a bit too difficult to invent an easy-to-remember rule as to when they are and are not interchangeable and how the nuance will change accordingly. The best way to learn this is through massive amounts of exposure long-term.

On a side note, ~たら would have been fine for both of the previous two sentences, but it would sound less natural in the sentence we saw before that ("If you don't talk in a louder voice...") because the result of the conditional phrase in that sentence is a desired outcome. More on that later in this lesson, though...

I mentioned earlier that ~ば, when paired with nouns and na-adjectives, becomes なら or ならば, yeah?

One of my grammar books had a sentence somewhat similar to this one:

いま なに してる の? もし ひま なら、 ランチ たべ に いかない?
What are you doing now? If you’re not busy, wanna go to lunch?
Literally: “now + what + are doing + の? + if + if you're not busy, + lunch + want to go to eat (=eating + に + won’t go)?”

Since we have なら being used with an invitation (which, to me, seems like a request), isn't this the same usage of なら we saw in the last lesson?

Well, kind of. Except for with the なら we saw in that lesson, conditional phrases were referring to the statements or appearance of the listener, but here the speaker has none of that information.

I have an even better explanation than that, though: It doesn't matter! Worrying about this is not worth your time.

Studying lots of grammar books also revealed rules about using ~ば that I had not been aware of until recently.

Namely, I didn't know that, technically speaking, unless the verb being used with ~ば is negative (i.e. ~なければ) or is a verb expressing a state (=ある, いる, できる), Vば cannot be followed by a volitional phrase or a request:

✕ もしのどが渇け、常温の水を飲んでください。
✕ もし のど が かわけば、 じょうおん の みず を のんで ください。
If you get thirsty, please drink room-temperature water.
✕ Literally: “if + if (you) get thirsty (=throat + が + if it gets dry), + normal temperature + の + water + を + drink (and) + please.”

Instead, we'd use ~たら (arguably the most versatile conditional form) in this type of situation:

〇 もしのどが渇いたら、常温の水を飲んでください。
〇 もし のど が かわいたら、 じょうおん の みず を のんで ください。
If you get thirsty, please drink room-temperature water.
〇 Literally: “if + if (you) get thirsty (=throat + が + if it gets dry), + normal temperature + の + water + を + drink (and) + please.”

Here are a couple more examples:

わたし は へや が まっくら でなければ、 ねむれません。
I can’t sleep unless the room is pitch black.
Literally: “I + は + room + が + if it isn't pitch black, + can’t sleep.”

もし わたし が だんせい ならば、 ひげ を のばしたい。
If I were a guy, I’d want to grow out my facial hair.
Literally: “if + I + が + if (I) were a male, + facial hair + を + want to grow out.”

One interesting thing about ~ば is that it is often used when the describing an outcome that is desired.

You may recall this lesson: [NDL #436] - JLPT N3: さえ~ば.

In it, we saw sentences like:

この しょくぶつ は みず を やり さえ すれば そだつ。
If you just give this plant water, it'll grow.
Literally: “this + plant + は + water + を + giving + さえ + if you do + grow up / be raised.”

~ば works nicely in this sentence because "growing" is a desirable outcome. Accordingly, two sentences like these have slightly different nuances:

この ボタン を おす と ベル が なります。
If you press this button, the bell will ring.
Literally: “this + button + を + if / when you press (=press + と) + bell + が + rings.”

この ボタン を おせば ベル が なります。
If you press this button, the bell will ring.
Literally: “this + button + を + if you press + bell + が + rings.”

The example with と appears to simply be describing the relationship between the button and the bell. The sentence with ~ば seems to be describing a desired outcome (=the bell ringing) that depends on a condition (=pressing this button).

Because ~ば is often used with desirable outcomes, it sounds a bit strange when used with an undesirable outcome.

✕ 牛乳を飲め、お腹が痛くなる。
✕ ぎゅうにゅう を のめば、 おなか が いたくなる。
✕ If [When] I drink milk, I get a stomachache.
✕ Literally: "(cow's) milk + を + if (I) drink, + stomach + が + painful + becomes."

It would be better to use a conditional form like と or ~たら:

〇 牛乳を飲む [飲んだら]、お腹が痛くなる。
〇 ぎゅうにゅう を のむ と [のんだら]、 おなか が いたくなる。
〇 If [When] I drink milk, I get a stomachache.
Literally: "(cow's) milk + を + if (I) drink, + stomach + が + painful + becomes."

You know, I was starting to feel pretty confident in my knowledge of Japanese conditionals.

After writing this lesson, they're scaring me all over again.

Maybe I need to take a nap or something...

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