Have you ever asked a question and not been satisfied with the answer? We ask questions every day, but are we asking them in the right way to get the answer we want? The way we phrase our questions shows if we really understand what we’re asking about.
“If” vs. “When”
“If” (subordinating conjunctions) and “when” (adverb, conjunction) both can be used in the past tense, present tense, or future tense.
“When” and “if” are often used in the same way and have similar meanings. They both indicate a time when something will or won’t happen.
- “When” is used when you’re talking about a specific time or period in the past, present, or future. For example: When I was in London, I had a good time. (it really happened)
If and When Are Used in the Same Way in British English and American English
- “If” is usually used as a conditional main clause, where the meaning of “if” is “uncertainty” and “unless” means “if not.”
- “If” is also used in different ways and could also mean a supposition, or a condition (see related article). Example: “If” I went to Beijing instead of London, I’d have had a hard time with the language” (Going to Beijing never happened, but it could have).
“When You Have Time” vs. “If You Have Time”
The difference between these two phrases is how they’re used.
- “If you have time” means “if time permits”, “if possible”, “if it fits into your time management”. There’s no guarantee.
- I’ll go shopping “when I have time”. (I won’t go shopping in 30 minutes because I’m busy, but I’ll have spare time in an hour – that’s “when I’ll have time”).
It may seem like these phrases are interchangeable, but when we look at their definitions, we see that they have different meanings.
If You Have Time
To illustrate this difference, let’s start with a hypothetical situation.
Imagine you have a colleague who’s struggling to complete some important social media tasks. Today, he’s asked you to help him with his marketing efforts and productivity goals by giving him some extra time.
Since he’s not your boss, he can’t say, “When you have time, please help me with my important tasks.” He’s to give you the opportunity to decline, so he’ll use “if you have time”.
On the other hand, your boss would use “when you have time” and expect you to have a time limit. For example, “next year” wouldn’t be appropriate in this context, “when” is more likely to mean “in a minute”, “an hour” or little time.
Think about what this phrase means – and remember that the phrase “if you have time” refers to an exact period of time in the future (in this case, “today”).
If you have time. The phrase “if you have time” is a polite way of asking someone to do something in the future. It implies “if you have spare time”.
The phrase “when you have time” is also a polite way of asking someone to do something but with a goal, and an expected time limit whether it’s a minute or a few years, it must happen. It can be used when you’re asking someone to do something and shows that what you’re being asked to do is one of the important tasks that need to be done or goals that need to be achieved.
- If you have time, please make me a sandwich.
- If you have time, we should meet for coffee.
- It can also be used in the negative:
- I won’t be able to do this if I don’t have enough spare time.
When You Have Time
The phrase “when you have time” is used to ask someone to do something.
- When you have time, please do this task.
- When you have time, join us for a few meals.
- When you have time, please learn this new skill.
- You can always say “if you have time,” or “when you have time.”
Both Sentences Have Different Meanings and Goals
If you say “when” and the person asked doesn’t answer or do anything, it’s considered rude. But if you say “if” and the person who was asked doesn’t answer or do anything, it’s more acceptable.
The phrases if you have time and when you have time can both be used to ask someone to do something in the future that’s not urgent or important enough to make it a command or a demand.
They’re both a polite way of asking someone for help (the request doesn’t need to be done urgently), but the context and intent are different.
When you use “if you have time” the person being asked for help should be free to choose whether or not to help.
When you use “when you have time”, the person will feel that the task is required.
Impose vs. Option
“When you have time” is an imposition. It’s a command. It tells the recipient that they need to do this thing, and do it now.
“If you have time” is an option. It gives the recipient the choice to say yes or no.