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While translating some technical documentation, I came across this dilemma. Which is better in the below examples?

The value is true if electrical and mechanical damage are covered
The value is true when electrical and mechanical damage are covered

I've read some similar questions about the usage of the word 'if', but it felt like the answers posted there don't apply here.

6

When should be used while referring to something that one is certain will happen.

E.g: I will be able to see you in the evening when I get off work.

Meaning: The speaker is sure that she/he will get free from work in the evening.

If should be used while referring to something that might or might not happen.

E.g: I will be able to see you in the evening if I get off work

Meaning: The speaker is not sure that she/he will get free from work in the evening.

If is a possibility, when is a certainty.

In your example if you are not certain whether electrical and mechanical damage will be covered, then you can use 'If'.

  • 1
    This is not entirely wrong, but it needs an important clarification: if the "value" in question is sometimes true and sometimes false (as seems to be the case), using "when" is entirely valid: it links them together just like saying "the value is true whenever electrical and mechanical damage are covered". – Nathan Tuggy Jul 29 '15 at 16:18
  • When implies no degree of certainty. In fact, it's used in a common expression which implies something is impossible: "when pigs fly". This answer is completely incorrect. – talrnu Jul 29 '15 at 17:19
  • It's certain that pigs don't fly. – iamanigeeit Sep 26 '18 at 3:19
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You use the conjunction "if" when you think of condition.

You use the conjunction "when" when you think of time.

Of course, there is a gray zone where both conjunctions are possible.

  • Taste the soup and add salt and pepper if necessary (condition).

  • Watch the pot and tell me when the water boils (time).

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    Indeed, when is like if with the added specification of timing, i.e. "when x happens, then y happens" is the same as "if x happens, then y happens at the same time". – talrnu Jul 29 '15 at 17:18
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"If" sets a condition. "If it rains, then I will need an umbrella." In this example, I'm stating that I will only need an umbrella IF it rains. Otherwise, I will not.

"When" sets an unconditional certainty. "When I arrive at my destination, I will exit my car." There is no uncertainty about whether or not (IF) I will arrive at my destination. I am stating with certainty that I will arrive at my destination, and I talk about what I will do after that certain event occurs.

"IF" = conditionally "WHEN" = unconditionally

  • This appears to restate the accepted answer, but without addressing either of the comments made on it. – Nathan Tuggy Jul 31 '15 at 20:18

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