Mini-Lesson Monday, Lesson #202 (Part 2): The Differences Between ‘If’ and ‘When’, through Sewell’s ‘Black Beauty’

We are outlining the usages and differences between the conjunctions ‘if’ and ‘when’ in today’s Lesson, with the help of Anna Sewell’s influential Black Beauty. Not only did Sewell espouse (promoted) animal welfare through it, but the public’s response to it helped to introduce new anti-cruelty legislation in Britain and the U.S.A. – as such, it has been described as ‘the most anti-cruelty novel of all time’ (B. Unti, 1998).

It is possible that if Anna Sewell had not written her book, horses would have continued to have been treated just as commodities (useful things) for many years longer.

Thankfully, animal welfare rights began to improve when her book reached a wide audience.

In Part 2 of this Lesson on ‘if’ and ‘when’, we will review the conjunction ‘when’ and how it is used. We will conclude by outlining the differences, in use and in meaning, between ‘if’ / ‘when’.

📝 HOW AND WHERE WE USE ‘WHEN’

We use ‘when’ in cases that are

  • in cases that are 100% definite,
  • to describe regular activities,
  • planned actions, or
  • interrupted actions.

💡 TIP: ‘When’ is often accompanied by ‘always’, ‘often’, or ‘never’.

Here are some examples of ‘when’ in action, drawn directly from Anna Sewell’s own writing:

📗 ‘When she saw him at the gate she would neigh with joy, and trot up to him.’ [This describes a regular habit or activity]

– Anna Sewell, Black Beauty (emphasis mine)

‘Neigh’ is the high, whinning sound that horses make. ‘Trot’ is when a creature (usually a 4-legged animal) walks at a quick pace.

📗 “One dark night he was galloping home as usual, when all of a sudden the wheel came against some great heavy thing in the road, and turned the gig over in a minute.”[Here ‘when’ describes a sudden interruption to a process].

– Anna Sewell, Black Beauty (emphasis mine)

‘Gallop’ is the fastest pace that a horse (or any other animal similar to it) can run at. A ‘gig’ was a kind of horse-drawn carriage, popular in the Victorian period.

📗 ‘When the old man died some years after I stepped into his place …’ [This man’s death was factual, 100% real]

– Anna Sewell, Black Beauty (emphasis mine)

📗 ‘… when the mistress did not go out the master drove himself in the two-wheeled chaise …’ [Another example of a regular occurrence or activity. It could also have been written as ‘whenever the mistress did not go out, the master drove himself in the two-wheeled chaise’.]

– Anna Sewell, Black Beauty (emphasis mine)

📗 ‘… when the master was busy I often stood for days together without stretching my legs at all, and yet being fed just as high as if I were at hard work.’ [As the sentence itself says, this was a regular occurrence: ‘I often stood for days …’]

– Anna Sewell, Black Beauty (emphasis mine)

📗 ‘One night, a few days after James had left, I had eaten my hay and was lying down in my straw fast asleep, when I was suddenly roused by the stable bell ringing very loud.’ [This is another example of ‘when’ used to describe a sudden interruption, in this case, to Black Beauty’s sleep.]

– Anna Sewell, Black Beauty (emphasis mine)

📗 ‘When he had eaten all he wanted he would have what he called fun with the colts, throwing stones and sticks at them to make them gallop.’ [This is another example of a regular occurrence]

– Anna Sewell, Black Beauty (emphasis mine)

‘Colts’ are very young horses.

👉 Notice the varied positioning of ‘when’ in the sentences above.

..

📝 WORD ORDER AND TENSES WHEN USING ‘WHEN’

As with ‘if’, the word order around usages of ‘when’ is flexible as long as the clauses are kept intact, that is, the ‘when clause’ and ‘main clause’. ✏️ So you can change the word order without it affecting the meaning – although the stress or emphasis might be different as a result.

For example, consider the original quote we looked at above:

📗 ‘When she saw him at the gate she would neigh with joy, and trot up to him.’

– Anna Sewell, Black Beauty (emphasis mine)

We could change its word order as follows:

✒️ She would neigh with joy and trot up to him when she saw him at the gate.

What is the difference? In Anna Sewell’s original line, the emphasis is on the regularity of the action – we might even say ‘whenever she saw him at the gate …’

But in my rewritten example, with ‘she would neigh and trot up to him with joy’ coming first, the emphasis is on this first part.

INTERRUPTED ACTION

✍️ Whenever we are using ‘when’ to describe interrupted action, remember that we generally use the progressive/continuous tense in the ‘main clause’ and the simple past tense in the ‘when clause’ to explain the result of that interruption.

📗 “One dark night he was galloping home as usual, when all of a sudden the wheel came against some great heavy thing in the road, and turned the gig over in a minute.”

– Anna Sewell, Black Beauty (emphases mine)

📝 IF vs WHEN

✍️ As you may have already noticed in the examples given, ‘when’ is more definite than ‘if’ in a sentence.

Take for example: ‘When I travel to London, I will send you a postcard’ vs. ‘If I travel to London, I will send you a postcard’. The first sentence shows that I am expecting to travel and so I will certainly send the postcard; on the other hand, the second sentence with ‘if’ shows that the action of sending the postcard is conditional on my actually having the chance to go to London (which isn’t certain yet).

Consider how they are used in the passage below (although ‘if’ is replaced here with ‘had’ – see Part 1 of this Lesson for an explanation):

📗 Besides the depressing effect this had on my spirits, it very much weakened my sight, and when I was suddenly brought out of the darkness into the glare of daylight it was very painful to my eyes. Several times I stumbled over the threshold, and could scarcely see where I was going.

I believe, had I stayed there very long, I should have become purblind, and that would have been a great misfortune, for I have heard men say that a stone-blind horse was safer to drive than one which had imperfect sight, as it generally makes them very timid. However, I escaped without any permanent injury to my sight, and was sold to a large cab owner.

– Anna Sewell, Black Beauty (emphasis mine)

I certainly hope that this lesson has been useful for you in helping to clarify what ‘if’ and ‘when’ stand for and how they differ. As always, if you have any further questions, you can contact me through one of the forms on the homepage – we can either arrange a lesson or, if your question is straightforward, I can answer it for you when I write another lesson. 😉