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If-sentences

In Irish, if-sentences can be confusing because different types of if-sentences require a different if-word. Let us take the following two English sentences:

1) If you marry him, you will regret it for ever.

2) If you were to marry him, you would regret it for ever.

These 2 sentences, although similar, convey 2 different ideas and, in Irish, they each require a different if-word.

In the first one, there is a sense that the if is likely i.e. there seems to be a reasonable possibility that the marriage is going to go ahead.

In the second one, there is more of a sense that the marriage under discussion is hypothetical or that the likelihood of the marriage going ahead is low.

Similarly, “if I were a rich man….” (as in the song) conveys the idea that the if situation is unlikely to be achieved or attained i.e that the singer is never going to be a rich man.

This type of construction (i.e “if you were to marry her” or “if I were a rich man”) uses what is called the past subjunctive of the verb (i.e were in these examples is the past subjunctive of the verb to be). Thankfully, we do not need to worry ourselves unduly about the past subjunctive in either English or Irish (which is not to suggest for a moment that anyone who wishes to refresh their knowledge of the English past subjunctive before proceeding further would not find it rewarding). However, we do need to understand that, in Irish, the type of if we use depends on whether the if is likely to be achieved or attained or fulfilled or whether the if is unlikely to be achieved, attained or fulfilled.

So, in Irish, the above sentences could be translated as follows:

1) If you marry him, you will regret it for ever.

Má phósann tú é, beidh tú in aiféala air go deo.

2) If you were to marry him, you would regret it for ever.

Dá bpósfá é, bheifeá in aiféala air go deo.

Positive if clauses ( and )

From looking at the examples above, we can see that is the if-word to be used for situations that are likely to be fulfilled or realised (or likely to have been fulfilled or realised) whereas is the if-word for more hypothetical situations where the chances of fulfilment are unlikely or remote. We can also make the very important observation that both verbs in the sentence were in the conditional mood whereas the verbs in the sentence were not. No matter how much I unwittingly muddy the waters in what is to follow, we should not lose sight of the simple fact that:

is accompanied by the conditional mood of the verb but is not.

This article is an attempt to shed some light on when we need to use a particular if-word/construction and when we might need to use a different one. It consists of grammatical ground-rules along with examples of different if-sentences but the former should not be allowed to deflect too much attention from the latter.

Rules for

is used when referring to conditions that are likely to be fulfilled, or to have been fulfilled, whether this fulfilment be in the past, present or future.

Má is used when the verb in the main clause (see note below) is in the present, past or future tenses or is in the imperative mood.

It is placed immediately before the verb.

It generally lenites the following verb (where applicable). The main exception to this is the verb (as usual, the past autonomous form of the verb resists lenition).

D’ prefix is required in the past tense with verbs in the past tense that begin with a vowel or with an f (as usual, it is not used with the past autonomous form of the verb).

is not followed by the future tense of the verb in the if- clause even when the verb in the main clause is in the future tense. Instead, when referring to future events, má is followed by the present habitual. That is to say that one would not say má bheidh. Instead, one would use má bhíonn when referring to future events. Similarly, one would not say má thiocfaidh, but rather má thagann. This will be discussed again, with examples, below.

Note: The term main clause refers to the principal clause in a sentence on which the if-clause depends for its sense. The main clause could stand alone and make a full sentence but the if-clause cannot – it needs the main clause. In the sentence “If you are still reading this, you have no sense”, the main clause is “you have no sense” and the if-clause is “if you are still reading this”.]

Examples

Má bhí airgead ag an sprionlóir úd, ní bhfuair a chlann cianóg rua de.

If that skinflint had money, his children did not get a brass farthing of it.

This is a likely if-clause. It is likely that the person did indeed have money – indeed, what is being conveyed in this sentence is that this person certainly, or almost certainly, had money even if he was not overly generous towards his children.

Má chuala sé an ráfla sin, níor labhair sé riamh air.

If he heard that rumour, he never spoke of it.

Again, the sense here is that it is likely that the person heard the rumour, or, at the very least, there is a reasonable chance that he heard it.

Má d’ól tú mo phionta, tá ceann úr agam ort.

If you drank my pint, you owe me a fresh one.

The likelihood that a pint has been misappropriated here appears to be high.

Sa lá atá inniu ann, má theastaíonn uait do dhúidín a dheargadh, ní féidir leat é a dhéanamh istigh i dteach an óil.

Nowadays, if you want to light your pipe, you cannot do it in the pub.

The sense here is that it is likely that someone might well like to spark up in the pub.

The remaining examples are similar to the ones above – they all deal with if-situations where the if is followed by something in the if-clause that is likely to be the case at the present time or is likely enough to come about at a later date.

Má tá rud éigin le rá agat, caith asat é.

If you have something to say, spit it out.

Má tá ocras ort fós, níl do dhóthain ithe agat.

If you are still hungry, you have not eaten your fill.

It is important to note that the last 2 examples use “má tá” because they refer to circumstances that apply currently or right now:

If you are still hungry (i.e. hungry right now)……

and

If you have something to say (i.e. something to say right now)….

If we want to refer to the future, we do not follow with the future tense in the if-clause (this was one of our rules, above). Instead, we use the present habitual tense as the following examples should illustrate:

Ullmhóidh mé bricfeasta mór duit amárach, má bhíonn ocras ort.

I will prepare a big breakfast for you tomorrow, if you are hungry.

[i.e. hungry at that future time rather than right now.]

It is worth re-stating that má bhíonn rather than má bheidh is what is used when referring to future events.

To go back to a previous example:

Má phósann tú é, beidh tú in aiféala air go deo.

If you marry him, you will regret it forever.

Once again, even though a possible future occurrence is being considered, is followed by the present habitual tense pósann tú (with lenition) rather than the future tense i.e má phósfaidh tú is not used.

Rules for

Note: To avoid confusion elsewhere, it should be noted that the word can be encountered with meanings other than the if conjunction that is being described here.

Dá is used mainly when referring to situations that are hypothetical and unlikely to be fulfilled i.e. when there is considerable doubt about their fulfilment. The term “contrary to fact” is sometimes used to describe such unlikely conditions since the speaker has already made up his/her mind that the if-situation being described is false in that it is not gong to become a reality. Thus, would be our if-word if, for some bizarre reason, we wanted to translate the following song-lines to Irish:

“If you were the only girl in the world,

And I were the only boy……”

It is placed immediately before the verb.

It causes eclipsis (where applicable) of the following verb.

The verb in the main clause is always in the conditional mood.

The verb in the if-clause is almost* always in the conditional mood.

*“Almost” because the verb in the if-clause (i.e. the verb immediately following ) may be in the form of the past subjunctive (yes – him again) – but this is very uncommon in the Irish of today. So, for practical purposes, we can get away with saying that the verb in the if-clause is always in the conditional mood. This means that we can combine the last 2 rules, above, into one very important rule:

In a if-sentence, the verb in the if-clause and the main clause are always in the conditional mood.

Note: The conditional remains the same for all tenses – past, present or future. Thus, thiocfadh sé can mean he would come or he would have come and knowing the context may be necessary in order to be able to distinguish between these possible meanings . This will be discussed briefly with one of our examples in a later section [one dealing with unlikely negative-ifs].

Examples

Dá mbuafainn an Crannchur Náisiúnta, ní athródh sé mo shaol.

If I would win the National Lottery, it would not change my life.

We use rather than because the likelihood of winning the lottery is remote.

As stated earlier, it is probably more helpful to translate the if-clause into English as if I were to win rather than if I would win to convey a better sense of the hypothetical nature of the situation.

Dá mbeadh an Ghaeilge ar mo thoil agam, chuirfinn isteach ar phost ag Radio na Gaeltachta.

If I had fluent Irish, I would apply for a job at Radio na Gaeltachta.

[Or - if I were to have fluent Irish/ were I to have fluent Irish/ had I fluent Irish,……i.e. the likelihood of me having fluent Irish is remote.]

Dá mbeadh an t-am agamsa, an mbeadh an fuinneamh agatsa?

If I had the time, would you have the energy?

[Or – if I were to have the time/were I to have the time,……i.e. I am not likely (at all, at all) to have the time.]

Dá n-éireodh sé in am, ní bheadh sé déanach.

If he would get up in time, he would not be late.

[Or – if he were to get up in time/were he to get up in time,…i.e. there is little chance of this person getting up in time.]

In addition to using and the conditional to refer to hypothetical events, it can also be used to make a question or suggestion more polite:

Dá ndéanfá an gar seo dom, bheinn faoi chomaoin agat choíche.

If you would [were to] do me this favour, I would be forever in your debt.

Negative if-clauses (If……not)

Whereas with positive if-clauses a different conjunction is used ( or ) depending on the likelihood of fulfilment of the condition, the same conjunction (mura) is used for negative if-clauses of both types (likely or unlikely). However, when dealing with unlikely negative if-scenarios the verb that follows mura is in the conditional mood (in the same way that is followed by the conditional mood when unlikely positive if-scenarios are being discussed).

Rules for mura

It is placed immediately before the verb.

It causes eclipsis (where applicable) of the following verb.

It requires the dependent form of the following verb.

It becomes murar before the past tense of regular verbs in which case the verb is lenited (where applicable) rather than eclipsed.

[The d’ prefix (which precedes verbs beginning with f or a vowel in the past tense) is not required with mura.]

Unlike , mura may be followed by the future tense of the verb in the if-clause.

Examples of using mura(r) to express likely negative-ifs

[i.e ones where there is a reasonable chance of the if……not condition being fulfilled or attained and where would have been used if they were positive if-clauses. I know that last sentence is probably as difficult to read as it was to write – but it may be that the examples will make things slightly clearer.]

Mura raibh caochta, an raibh beagáinín súgach?

If you were not paralytic (blind drunk), were you a little bit tipsy?

There is a reasonable chance that the person was not paralytic. The speaker is saying “if you were not paralytic,…..” and conveying the sense that there is indeed a reasonable chance the person was not paralytic.

Note: We will return briefly to this example when discussing unlikely negative-ifs.

Murar phóg sé í agus í umhal ábalta, ní raibh ciall ar bith aige.

If he didn’t kiss her and her willing and able, he had no sense at all.

What is being conveyed here is that there is a reasonable (or more than reasonable) probability that he did not kiss her.

Mura bhfuil sé briste, ná deisigh é.

If it is not broken, don’t fix it.

There is a reasonable likelihood that it is not broken.

The remaining examples of likely negative if-sentences are similar to the ones above – they all deal with if-situations where the if……not condition has a reasonable probability of being fulfilled.

These examples are continued in A Big If 2

Firstly submitted by: Merryploughbhoy

Learn more Irish Gaelic grammar and vocabulary at Bitesize Irish Gaelic.

7 Comments »

  1. Alison said,

    August 20, 2007 @ 11:54 pm

    Is it correct to say ‘ Ma ta fonn orm, cuirfidh me glaoch ort? ‘ If i feel like it, i will call you?
    Thank you

  2. brei said,

    October 1, 2007 @ 7:33 pm

    Nice

  3. isobelle said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 9:13 pm

    it will be st Patrick day on the 17 march

  4. numealinesimpetar said,

    August 17, 2009 @ 12:13 am

    Is it correct to say ‘ Ma ta fonn orm, cuirfidh me glaoch ort? ‘ If i feel like it, i will call you?
    Thank you

    Seems right to me. You could also say “má bhíonn fonn orm” etc … “If I’ll be in the mood/feel like it etc; but má tá seems ok as well.

  5. Donna Caldwell said,

    July 12, 2012 @ 5:46 am

    Hi,
    Can you give me the Irish sentence for this:
    ‘i love you and think of you always ‘

    its a tattoo, im missing home and thinking of everyone all the time

    Regards
    Donna

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