The particle, “ли,” means “if” or “whether.” “Ли” has two main uses in Russian: as a particle for asking yes or no questions, and as a conjunction in dependent clauses and indirect speech. Beyond this, “ли” can also be used to add emphasis to questions.
Regarding word order, when using “ли” in both questions and dependent clauses, “ли” will follow the emphasized word and/or the operative element.
Below we run through the different uses of “ли” and provide many example sentences to make sure you understand how to use “ли” in context.
“Ли” can be used as an interrogative participle in Russian to ask questions that have yes or no answers. When you use “ли” in this way, it is 100% clear that you are asking a question and are expecting an answer. Please note, using “ли” in this way is somewhat formal.
The typical word order of these interrogative phrases with “ли” involves putting the verb first (emphasized), then “ли,” then the rest of the sentence.
Another common use of “ли” is in dependent clauses, particularly in indirect questions and speech that is relaying opinions or someone else’s words. When these phrases are translated into English, they form indirect questions using “if” or “whether.”
Just like above, the word order in these dependent clauses has “ли” following the emphasized word in a sentence, typically the verb.
You'll notice that the Russian tense in many of the example dependent clause sentences with "ли" is different from how it translates into English. In Russian sentences where the introductory clause is in the past tense, the dependent clause will typically be in the present tense, even though its meaning - as translated into English - is also in the past. This is because the introductory clause sets the stage for what tense the entire sentence is taking place in.
Often, students will make the mistake of replacing “ли” with “если.” However, “если” only means “if” in conditional clauses – not in dependent classes and indirect speech.
When to use “ли”:
When to use “если”:
Here are some idiomatic expressions that use “ли”:
вряд / едва ли = it's improbable, unlikely
ой ли = it's improbable / oh it it / oh, are you?
мало ли = so what / you never know / presumably / I assume
чуть ли = almost, nearly
то ли...то ли = whether...or