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I recently worked on the zero conditional again:

"When water reaches 100 degrees, it boils".

It´s a general truth. Funnily, I was very much intrigued when I listened to a favorite song of mine: "Learn to fly" by the Foo Fighters.

The chorus goes as follow:

"I'm looking for a complication
Looking 'cause I'm tired of trying

Make my way back home
When I learn to fly (high)"

"When I learn to fly (high), I make my way back home" or vice versa.

It should be the zero conditional, but it states something more like a plan or hope rather than a general truth, doesn´t it?

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After a lot of thinking, searching, reading and discussing with linguists about your question, it seems that there is no one or absolute answer for it. Some of linguists consider it as a conditional while others don't. Such sentence is called in the literature "when conditionals".

Per learning it should not bother you since your question is theoretically only and it doesn't have any direct consequences on the practical language. That's why this question has to do more with linguistics than ELL. I suggest you to ask the same question on the linguistics site here on StalkExchange.

To give you a better picture, look at this thesis by David Chabot that was under the supervision of Prof Dr Frank Veltman that is considered an authority in conditional sentences: "When ‘When’ Is a Conditional When" (p.65-81).

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Zero conditional We use the zero conditional to talk about things that are always true.

If you heat water, it boils. When the sun goes down, it gets dark. It lights up if you push that button. The present simple is used in both clauses.

British Council description of zero conditional

The lyrics are poetry. That said, my reading is: I'm looking for a complication Looking 'cause I'm tired of trying [I'll] Make my way back home When I learn to fly (high)

As the will is implied (though not stated), this cannot be a zero conditional. It might be a first conditional, though when is not if:

We use the first conditional when we talk about real and possible situations.

I’ll go shopping on the way home if I have time. If it’s a nice day tomorrow, we’ll go to the beach. If Arsenal win, they’ll be top of the league. In first conditional sentences, the structure is usually if + present simple and will + infinitive. It’s not important which clause comes first.

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+50

First off, song lyrics typically fall on the poetry side of the poetry/prose divide and sometimes bend grammatical rules in the name of aesthetics or emphasis. Having said that...

When I listen to this song, I hear the missing word as “I’ll”, not “I”. That would make the revised sentence:

[I’ll] make my way home when I learn to fly.

This sentence is in the first conditional, which does express the meaning you’re expecting.

I think the primary reason to interpret the sentence this way is that people generally learn to fly only once, so it can’t be a habitual action that would use the zero conditional.

  • first and zero conditionals are not the same thing. – Lambie Apr 15 '18 at 19:32

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