Mini-Lesson Monday, Lesson #202 (Part 1): The Differences Between ‘If’ and ‘When’, through Sewell’s ‘Black Beauty’

📗 ‘When it was hot we used to stand by the pond in the shade of the trees, and when it was cold we had a nice warm shed near the grove.’

– Anna Sewell, Black Beauty (1877)

‘If’ and ‘when’ are two small conjunctions describing time that are often confusing for English language learners. Today’s Lesson, in two parts, should help to clarify some of these issues!

We are turning to one famous children’s classic of the Victorian Era (and beyond) – Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877).

It is different from every other book we have considered to date, since it is a kind of animal autobiography told from the perspective of a horse who works under several different masters – some good, some bad. Like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Black Beauty was written to encourage readers to consider life from the perspective of an abused and overworked creature – in this case, the horse called Black Beauty. As such, some of the vocabulary in the quotations below refers to the kinds of actions that are more common among horses (rather than people) – I will highlight these as we go along.

This Lesson covers the use of ‘if’, the use of ‘when’, and the differences between them over two sections.


Perhaps ‘if’ is best known for talking about situations that have not happened (in the past) or will not happen (in the future), but could happen.

✍️ ‘If’ can be used to describe:

  • conditions,
  • chance, or
  • some situation that was not (or will not be) real or realised (come to pass).

Note: It is not to be confused with ‘as if’ which means ‘like’. (I wrote a Lesson on it here).

Here are some examples, taken from Black Beauty:

📗 ‘They said if it had been a little more to one side it would have killed him …’ [Here we see how ‘if’ is used to describe the chance of something happening or not happening]

– Anna Sewell, Black Beauty (emphasis mine)

📗 … she says if she takes the train she should still have four miles to walk …’

[Here ‘if’ describes a conditional situation: ‘she should still have four miles to walk’ is conditional on a previous action: ‘if she takes the train’]

– Anna Sewell, Black Beauty (emphasis mine)

📗 “If they would break their own bones, and smash their own carts, and lame their own horses, that would be their own affair, and we might let them alone, but it seems to me that the innocent always suffer; and then they talk about compensation!” [‘If’ here describes chance]

– Anna Sewell, Black Beauty (emphasis mine)

‘Cart’ refers to a strong vehicle, pulled by horses, with space behind for carrying heavy things. To ‘lame’ someone is to hurt their legs so badly that they can no longer walk. ‘Compensation’ here refers to the money that is paid to someone who has suffered by the person who hurt them, as an acknowledgement of the wrong done or as a support for them in their hurt, disability, injury, etc.

📗 If the roads are very bad indeed our shoes are roughed, but that makes us feel nervous at first.’ [Again, ‘our shoes are roughed’ is conditional on ‘if the roads are very bad indeed’]

– Anna Sewell, Black Beauty (emphasis mine)

‘Roughed’ – I understand this to mean that the horses’ shoes are made rough by tough walking surfaces.

📗 ‘… the doctor said if I could get him into the hospital he might get well …’ [‘If’ here describes chance]

– Anna Sewell, Black Beauty (emphasis mine)

📗 I think if he would have let me just look at things quietly, and see that there was nothing to hurt me, it would have been all right, and I should have got used to them. [This is an example of ‘if’ used to describe an unreal situation, a situation that did not actually happen]

– Anna Sewell, Black Beauty (emphasis mine)

📗 They both laughed, and James said, “If it [were] not for bringing back the past, I should have named him Rob Roy, for I never saw two horses more alike.” [Again, this describes an unreal situation]

– Anna Sewell, Black Beauty (emphasis mine)


Sentences that have an ‘unreal if’ or ‘unrealised if’ always refer to situations that are either in the future or past. They have not been ‘realised’, that is, they have not actually happened yet.

✍️ This makes them hypothetical statements, and so they often use the subjunctive (a review Lesson on the subjunctive can be found here).

Notice how each one of these following sentences describes such a situation hypothetically.

Try dividing each sentence into two parts: one part starting with ‘if’ and the other part describing what would be the result of the ‘if’ part coming to pass. (I have done this for you in the first few examples).

📗 ‘… if she were ill-used or unfairly treated ¦ she would not be unlikely to give tit for tat. …’

– Anna Sewell, Black Beauty (emphasis mine)

‘Tit-for-tat’ means to give someone something in response to their having given you something similar first. For example, if Tony steps on Tim’s foot, and then Tim steps on Tony’s foot in response, we might describe it as a ‘tit-for-tat’ situation. Or if Tony gives Tim a gift, and Tim feels obliged and gives Tony some gift in return, it might be seen as a positive ‘tit-for-tat’ situation.

📗 “Well,” said she, “if I had had your bringing up, I might have had as good a temper as you, but now I don’t believe I ever shall.”

– Anna Sewell, Black Beauty (emphasis mine)

📗 “If I had been you,” said Ginger, “I would have given those boys a good kick, and that would have given them a lesson.”

– Anna Sewell, Black Beauty (emphasis mine)

👉 TIP: Another word that is sometimes used instead of ‘if’ is ‘had’ followed by the personal pronoun or a subject of some kind:

📗 ‘I believe, had I stayed there very long, I should have become purblind …’

– Anna Sewell, Black Beauty (emphasis mine)

‘Purblind’ means partially blind.


In the last few sentences, we practised dividing the sentence into two parts, which we can call ‘clauses’.

👉 In brief: the ‘if clause’ is the part of the sentence that includes the word ‘if’ and the ‘main clause’ is whatever part of a sentence remains, which does not include ‘if’ (it can be an opinion, suggestion, or just about anything).

✍️ Now the great thing about‘if’ sentences is that their word order can be switched. We can change the order of these two clauses without altering (changing) the ideas or meaning of the sentence.

However, changing the word order can change the emphasis of the sentence. Generally speaking, whichever clause is at the beginning of a sentence is the most emphasised clause.

✏️ Note on punctuation: Whenever the ‘if clause’ comes first, it should be followed by a comma (which is not necessary when the sentence begins with the ‘main clause’ instead). Notice this in the following examples from Black Beauty:

📗 ‘If he was [were] very serious and quite determined, I always knew it by his voice, and that had more power with me than anything else, for I was very fond of him.’

– Anna Sewell, Black Beauty (emphasis mine)

📗 ‘I had a loose box, and might have been very comfortable if he had not been too indolent to clean it out.’

– Anna Sewell, Black Beauty (emphasis mine)

‘Indolent’ simply means ‘lazy’.

👉 Join me in Part 2 of this Lesson where we will consider all the different usages of the conjunction ‘when’, as well as how ‘if’ and ‘when’ differ from each other.

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)